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 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 recruitment agencies.
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 Muthukumarana said.
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.
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 for employment.
“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.
(Originally published in the Sunday Observer, Sri Lanka.)