The illegal send-off
Three women in religious garb apprehended at the BIA:
Recruitment agents behind the scam:
Incidents of human smuggling in Sri Lanka took a new dimension, with
the detection of three women who attempted to leave the country
disguised as members of the Salvation Army.
The three women nabbed at
(Ministry of Foreign Employment)
The culprit behind the scam is allegedly an unscrupulous labour
recruitment sub agent, who is still at large.
The three women, from Nuwara Eliya and its suburbs, have identified
the sub agent, during the preliminary investigations by the Sri Lanka
Bureau of Foreign Employment (SLBFE).
The three women were detected at the Bandaranaike International
Airport when they were questioned by SLBFE officials.
The trio had all the necessary documents to prove their visit and
were traveling on visit visas. Parallel to the investigations that are
under way to nab the culprit, the SLBFE is on a hunt to detect migrant
labour recruitment agencies who send workers abroad on visit visas.
Foreign Employment Minister Thalatha Athukorale issuing a statement
following the detection, called on the public to inform the special
investigation unit of the SLBFE about illegal acts of migrant labour
She said a directive was issued to SLBFE officials to immediately
carry out investigations and bring the perpetrator to book. “Under
section 360 C of the Penal Code sending migrant workers illegally is a
punishable offence,” she said.
“Since we do not have a proper mechanism to enable people in the
lower income strata to earn a better living, foreign employment and
labour migration will continue and will not end soon,” she pointed out.
According to SLBFE officials, obtaining visit visas was a popular
modus operandi to send people for jobs abroad. This ruse was adopted by
some people who migrate for work and later illegally overstay and
continue with employment. As a result, they end up in problematic
situations and then seek help from the government. It is difficult to
assist them as they have flouted the laws of the country and committed
an offence in a foreign land, Deputy General Manager (Legal
investigations – Licence) of the SLBFE, attorney-at-law Keerthi
Minister of Foreign
Employment, Thalatha Athukorale and Chairman, SLBFE, Raj
Obeysekere open the unit
Many people from Sri Lanka are randomly questioned by SLBFE officials
at the airport, based on instinct and in an attempt to weed out
unscrupulous migrant workers.
Right to travel
“People have all the right to travel on visit visas, even in their
attempts to find a job. However, according to immigration laws, they
need to at least return to Sri Lanka and travel back to the destination
country after they obtain their work permits,” added Muthukumarana.
He said in Amendment 56 introduced in 2009 to Section 16 of the SLBFE
Act No. 21 of 1985, enabled the SLBFE officials to question people
migrating from Sri Lanka at the exit point.
As people have continuously exploited the ‘Visit visa’, the SLBFE is
compelled to meticulously check migrant workers at the airport. “For the
safety of citizens and to avoid ending up in tragedies in foreign
countries, we have to continue with the screening program at the airport
entrance,” Muthukumarana said.
Female migrant workers
A domestic worker in the Middle East
The SLBFE does not have a mechanism to screen Sri Lankans, who have
already migrated to a foreign country on visit visas and were
overstaying the visa term, continuing their jobs as undocumented
workers. The SLBFE can only prevent suspected migrants from going abroad
“If a person feels he or she is questioned unfairly by officials,
they have all the right to act legally. If their feel their fundamental
rights are being violated they could always take a recourse to legal
action,” Muthukumarana said.
As a human rights lawyer and labour migrant rights activist, Lakshan
Dias said SLBFE officials do not have any right to randomly check people
at the airport, simply because the people ‘look’ like labour migrants.
“But this happens on a daily basis, despite constant resistance and the
reason given is how a person ‘looks’” he said.
Dias stressed that this was unfair. “Who has clearly defined who a
migrant workeris ?,” he questioned, pointing out that in this process
only migrant workers selected for low or unskilled jobs are subjected to
questioning at the airport entrance.
Laws and regulations
The problem lies in people becoming undocumented migrant workers in a
foreign land. Dias, who prefers to identify migrant workers as
‘unregistered with the SLBFE’ instead of ‘undocumented’, stressed the
need to improve a mechanism to screen them before they are selected to
leave for a foreign country.
“Affluent people, who are well-dressed above that of the average Sri
Lankan labour migrant, he somehow passes through even with forged
documents. The real problem emerging from people overstaying the visa
term does not get solved,” Dias explained.
Certain laws and regulations in labour migration, such as the complex
visa process and Family Background Report for women with children less
than five years of age, create a hurdle, pushing people, deeply
entrenched in poverty, to use alternative routes.
Using the less-complicated visit visa procedure, forged documents
with altered personal details are among the most common.
“Unless there is a mechanism to serve Sri Lankan migrant workers, who
bring a significant amount of foreign exchange to the country’s economy,
these alternative routes will continue to be a problem and there will be
no end to the discrimination against migrant workers,” he said.