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“While Shedding “Tears” for Rizana, Are we to Continue Sending Thousands of Other “Rizanas” to Face Similar Ordeals”?

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Gamini Weerakoon

The froth and fume directed against the Saudis on the beheading of the innocent Sri Lankan girl Rizana Nafeek can be understood but can Saudis alone be held responsible for this tragedy?

Each country has its own peculiar judicial and penal systems which they do not stretch even to their own nationals and it cannot be expected that they will do so to foreigners – least of all abjectly poor workers from the poorest of countries.

Authorities of Sri Lanka as well as those from South and South East Asian countries are aware of the risks faced by their nationals going in search of a meagre salary – in terms of hard currency – because it could lift them out of bonds of poverty which generations of their people have been tied to. These authorities are willing accomplices of the 21st century’s system of slavery from which they profit immensely.

Dollar beckons
Despite claims of being the ‘Resplendent Isle’ and now the ‘Miracle of Asia’, the temptation of permitting their nationals to seek refuge in this system has been found to be irresistible. Migrant Sri Lankan labour in 2010 (the latest available statistics) brought into the country $(US) 4.1 billion. Much of this labour force comprises of Rizanas – housemaids slaving in the desert sands. It comprises 33 per cent of the foreign exchange earning of the country, 8 per cent of the GDP. This has been the trend since the late 1970s when the Middle East labour market opened up. Despite the growls and postures of being the ‘Lion Race’, we have continued to send our women into virtual slavery to collect that pot of gold from the Middle East deserts.

How much of this money has benefited the poor of this country in general? Yes, the workers who have successfully toiled for years and come back have been able to build a modest home of brick and tiles for their families which is what the young girl Rizana ventured out for. Photographs of her humble home of thatched cadjan leaves in Muttur speak volumes of her desire to provide a decent living for her family.

There are about an estimated 1.7 million expatriate Sri Lankan migrant workers sending in the money. Should all able bodied people in the country seek their future abroad; leaving behind their children and elders uncared for, if this country is to come out of poverty? Is slavery in the Middle East the only mode of poverty alleviation?

Slavery and poverty alleviation

Poverty alleviation is a buzzword heard at seminars held in plush conference rooms of five star hotels to public platforms of village greens. For a near three decades we have heard of such propaganda campaigns – Gam Udawas of President Premadasa, Samurdhi of Chandrika Kumaratunge and the latest fanfare Divi Neguma of the Rajapaksas. So far the only successful poverty alleviation has been through Middle East employment. The public has seen much of the funds allocated for poverty alleviation being expended on propaganda blasts and financial elevation of political hangers on. The public will be awaiting the flowering of the much-hyped Divi Neguma.

While it would be incumbent on any government to think of other channels of poverty alleviation than Middle East employment, much thinking will have to be done on sending Sri Lankans for employment there. The Rajapaksa government is caught in a bind. It simply cannot do away with the Middle East income but has to find answers to the welfare and security of our migrant workers. All attempts made so far, particularly to Saudi Arabia, have fallen on deaf ears. Ambassadors, leading Muslim politicians, delegations led by ministers in charge of foreign employment and even appeals made by President Mahinda Rajapaksa as in the case of clemency for Rizana, have failed.
Diplomacy is the only possible way out but we have hit a stonewall.

The Foreign Ministry strategy since the days of A. C. S. Hameed has been to send Muslims as ambassadors to these Muslim countries but that has been of no avail. The current ambassador has been recalled to Colombo after the execution of Rizana but to make him a scapegoat for the tragedy would be ridiculous in the context that all the appeals of the notable and quotable including that of the president had failed to save the poor girl who had been held in prison for eight years and finally beheaded.

A possibility would be to work out a strategy in conjunction with other South and South East Asian countries in the same plight but that may anger the all powerful dollar sheiks who may be thinking that they are doing a favour to these poor countries by taking in the migrant workers.

Thoughts have been expressed by leaders such as in the Mahinda Chintanaya about the changing the focus of the labour migration policy from ‘a totally remittance earning occupation’ commodity to a more humanistic approach but these are only fond visions for the future rather than coming to grips with the hard reality of endangering the main source of foreign exchange.

It’s a hard choice for the government: Not endangering the main source of foreign exchange while corpses of daughters of Lanka keep returning in planes and some of those alive hobble back with positive signs of torture. While bursting our blood vessels over Rizana’s fate, are we to continue sending thousands of other Rizana’s to face similar ordeals?

Is Sri Lankan double thinking of committing the folly and condemning the results, the answer?
Thursday’s Daily News carried a paragraph about a ‘World Crocodile Conference’ being sponsored by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) being held in Sri Lanka in May this year. Why Sri Lanka as the venue? May be we have gained international fame for crocodile tears.COURTESY:THE SUNDAY LEADER

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