Namal assures solution to Sri Lankan women wrongfully detained in Saudi Arabia

By Easwaran Rutnam

Sports Minister Namal Rajapaksa has assured a solution to Sri Lankan women wrongfully detained in Saudi Arabia.

Responding to a tweet by this journalist, Rajapaksa tweeted saying he will inform the Foreign Ministry and speak to the relevant authorities to see how best they can resolve this matter as fast as they can.

At least 41 Sri Lankan women, the majority of whom are migrant domestic workers, have spent months on end arbitrarily detained at a deportation center in Saudi Arabia, awaiting repatriation to their home country, Amnesty International revealed yesterday.

The women have been held at a Deportation Detention (Tarheel) Centre in Riyadh for periods ranging from eight to 18 months. At least three of them have young children detained with them, and one woman is in urgent need of medical care and treatment which she is not receiving.

Their plight is a stark illustration of how domestic workers remain caught up in the inherently abusive kafala (sponsorship) system. In March 2021 Saudi Arabia brought in significant reforms to its kafala system, however these reforms excluded migrant domestic workers who make up 30% of the country’s 10 million migrant workers.

“Detaining migrant workers for prolonged periods of up to 18 months when they have done nothing wrong and are victims themselves is cruel and inhumane. These women left their homes and families behind to earn a livelihood in Saudi Arabia only to find themselves locked into an abusive sponsorship system that facilitates exploitation and abuse. Now they are indefinitely detained with no opportunity to challenge their detention and no indication of when they can be reunited with their loved ones,” said Lynn Maalouf, Deputy Middle East and North Africa Director at Amnesty International.

“Their ordeal clearly illustrates the urgent need for Saudi Arabia to extend labour law protections and reforms to its kafala system to migrant domestic workers. The Saudi Arabian authorities should immediately release all women detained solely for their migration status and work with the Sri Lankan authorities to facilitate their return home.”

None of the women have been informed of any charges brought against them; nor have they been granted access to a lawyer or received any consular assistance. Many were detained after they were unable to obtain an exit permit from their employer to leave the country or a work permit to regularize their stay in the country. Under Saudi Arabia’s kafala system which ties migrant workers to their employer, this is grounds for indefinite detention.

Amnesty International interviewed 11 individuals with close knowledge of the detentions, including migrant domestic workers, an activist and an official from the Sri Lankan Embassy in Riyadh.

In at least five cases, women were detained because they fled from an abusive employer and had not obtained an exit permit from their employer to leave the country. (Colombo Gazette)

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