By Easwaran Rutnam
Sri Lankan women detained in Saudi Arabia are to be deported in batches, Colombo Gazette learns.
Sources in Saudi Arabia said that the first batch out of 43 women detained for violating their visa regulations are expected to be deported by the end of this month.
When contacted by Colombo Gazette, the Charge de Affaires of the Sri Lankan Embassy in Riyadh, Madhuka Wickramarachchi confirmed that discussions are underway between the Sri Lankan authorities and the relevant officials in Saudi Arabia to bring down a group of Sri Lankan women, who are detained at a deportation centre in Saudi Arabia.
“Some of the women are cleared by the Saudi authorities and issued exit visas to return to Sri Lanka, but unfortunately, the Saudi airlines, in which the Saudi government deport these women to Sri Lanka, was not operating since March 2020. The Embassy and the Consulate General in Jeddah, since last March was discussing with the deportation centre authorities to find alternate methods, such as, using the Sri Lankan airlines to deport these Sri Lankans in small groups. Since much progress of has achieved on these discussion, the Embassy and the Consulate General is confident that the first group could be repatriated by the end of this month,” he said.
Amnesty International had revealed this week that 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.
Sports Minister Namal Rajapaksa later assured a solution to the Sri Lankan women wrongfully detained in Saudi Arabia.
Responding to a tweet by this journalist, Rajapaksa had 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.
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)