UN Expert re Sri Lankans Migrating Abroad for Work

by Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, May 27, 2014

COLOMBO / GENEVA (27 May 2014) – “The Government of Sri Lanka must boost the efforts it has made in recent years in order to prevent exploitation and abuse of Sri Lankans migrating abroad for work, during the recruitment stage, while in service in the destination country, and upon return to the country,” the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, François Crépeau, today urged.

At the end of his first official visit* to Sri Lanka, Mr. Crépeau also called for better monitoring of the recruitment industry through putting in place a comprehensive policy with high standards, improving recruitment agencies’ services and holding them accountable, regulating irregular sub-agents, and reducing costs for migrants.

Over the years a large recruitment industry has developed in Sri Lanka. Approximately 1.8 million Sri Lankans are working abroad, with great social consequences for migrants and their families. Remittances have become the key foreign exchange earning source in the country, and a source of economic development and dependency for nearly a third of the population.

“Malpractice by private recruitment agencies and gaps in the regulatory framework for sub-agents lead to exploitative and abusive situations for migrant workers,” the human rights expert said, quoting the 2008 Sri Lankan National Labour Migration Policy.

“I heard reports of migrants having signed a contract in Sri Lanka which was replaced by another upon arrival in the destination State, with a lower salary and often a different job description,” Mr. Crépeau said. “Many migrants also report paying excessive recruitment fees, as well as human rights violations in the workplace, including serious abuse and exploitation.”

The Special Rapporteur noted that, despite recent initiatives, Sri Lankan authorities are often not able to protect Sri Lankan migrants in the destination States. “Cooperation with destination States needs to be enhanced in order to ensure that the rights of Sri Lankans are respected during the whole migration process,” he said. “Sri Lanka’s chairmanship of the Colombo Process is an excellent opportunity to develop international cooperation on such issues.”

The majority of Sri Lankan women migrate to work as domestic workers, although the proportion of domestic workers is decreasing. Due to the financial incentives provided, some of these women are sent abroad by their husbands or family members, who expect them to send their salaries back home.

“Due to the worksite being a private household and the informal nature of the work, domestic workers are particularly vulnerable to abuse and exploitation,” the expert warned. “Domestic work is excluded from most of the labour laws in many countries, including in Sri Lanka.”

“I call on the authorities to create income-generating opportunities in Sri Lanka, especially for women, youth and minorities, including in rural areas, in order to ensure that migration is a choice, rather than a necessity,” Mr. Crépeau said.

The Special Rapporteur drew attention to specific age limits applied to women who wish to migrate as domestic workers, depending on the destination State, as well as restrictions applied to mothers with children under five.

“I regret the discrimination against Sri Lankan women in relation to the right to migrate,” he said. “The fact that they have small children, or that many domestic workers suffer abuse and exploitation, including the tragic execution of Rizana Nafeek, cannot be used as a reason to deny them the right to leave their country.”

Mr. Crépeau called for better welfare services and consular assistance provided to Sri Lankan migrants in destination States, in order to ensure that diplomatic missions are properly staffed, and that staff is properly trained to deal with all issues faced by migrant workers.

“I have heard reports that migrants who die abroad are sometimes returned mutilated, some of them with missing organs. No autopsy is performed in Sri Lanka, and the family is often not allowed to see the body,” he said with concern.

The expert noted that the Sri Lankan Government has placed particular emphasis on increasing the migration of skilled workers. “However,” he said, “the majority of Sri Lankan migrants are still low-skilled, thus more likely to face human rights violations, including harassment and abuse in the work place.”

In this regard, he commended the authorities for their pre-departure training and information programmes aiming at promoting informed decision-making and improving skills levels, including language skills, and encouraged them to enhance such programmes.

While Special Rapporteur’s visit mainly focused on migration from Sri Lanka, he also looked into migration to Sri Lanka. “I regret the policy of mandatory administrative detention of irregular migrants, with no individual assessment, no maximum time limit, no alternatives to detention, and the detention of families with children,” he said.

“In the Mirihana detention centre, I met five children who have stayed there with their families as long as two years, with no access to education, in violation of the principles set out in the Convention on the Rights of the Child,” the expert added

During his eight-day mission to the country, Mr. Crépeau met with a range of Government officials responsible for migration and labour, the National Human Rights Commission, international organizations, civil society, the private sector and both prospective and returned migrants.

He also visited Mirihana detention centre,Boossa prison,the Sahana Piyasa welfare centre in Katunayake, Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment (SLBFE)  provincial centres and training centres in Kurunegala and Kandy, and the migrant resource centre in Tangalle.

The Special Rapporteur will present a comprehensive report of the visit to the UN Human Rights Council in June 2015.

(*) Check the Special Rapporteur’s end-of-mission statement: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=14645&LangID=E

François Crépeau (Canada) was appointed Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants in June 2011 by the UN Human Rights Council, for an initial period of three years. As Special Rapporteur, he is independent from any government or organization and serves in his individual capacity. Mr. Crépeau is also Full Professor at the Faculty of Law of McGill University, in Montréal, where he holds the Hans and Tamar Oppenheimer Chair in Public International Law. Learn more, log on to:http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Migration/SRMigrants/Pages/SRMigrantsIndex.aspx

‘Labour exploitation of migrants’ – Check the Special Rapporteur’s 2014 report to the UN Human Rights Council:http://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Issues/SRMigrants/A.HRC.26.35.pdf

Read the International Convention for the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families:http://www.ohchr.org/EN/ProfessionalInterest/Pages/CMW.aspx

UN Human Rights, country page – Sri Lanka: http://www.ohchr.org/en/countries/asiaregion/pages/lkindex.aspx

For more information and media requests, please contact Christel Mobech (+41 79 201 0119 / )

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