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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 6 March 2021

Coronavirus: About 5,000 Sri Lankans await repatriation from Dubai

Consulate says the first batch of 280 citizens returned home on Tuesday after flights were temporarily suspended in October

Volunteers in Dubai give food to Sri Lankan workers who have lost their jobs. All photos by Sahana welfare group
Volunteers in Dubai give food to Sri Lankan workers who have lost their jobs. All photos by Sahana welfare group

About 300 Sri Lankans who lost their jobs during the coronavirus crisis or were stuck in the UAE after arriving on visit visas in search of employment were repatriated on Tuesday.

Among the passengers were about 100 women.

They were given food and shelter by the Sri Lankan Business Council, the consulate, and Sahana, a Sri Lankan Welfare Association.

There are so many who are desperate because they lost their jobs or had salary cuts

Suren Swaminathan, Sri Lankan Business Council

Sri Lanka suspended international flights last month after the island nation reported a surge in Covid-19 cases.

Tuesday's flight was the first after the country shut down repatriations in early October.

About 9,500 Sri Lankans have been repatriated since May and another 5,000 are waiting to be sent home.

“We will give priority to people with serious medical conditions, pregnant women, people who have lost jobs and their accommodation," Nalinda Wijerathna, Sri Lanka consul general in Dubai told The National.

"Apart from people in the parks and on the roads who we have moved to shelters, there are other Sri Lankans who have lost jobs but have a place to stay. But they need to return and we will try our best to provide them with relief.

“They are going through a very difficult time and we understand their plight."

More than 21,000 Sri Lankans initially registered for repatriation flights with the embassy and consulate in the UAE during the early days of the coronavirus outbreak.

Several have since found employment when businesses opened up after stay-home restrictions eased.

“The registration figure varies because some people have now found jobs," Mr Wijerathna said.

“There are still 4,000 to 5,000 who want to go back. Hopefully in the coming two weeks we can arrange more flights to send people back."

Many worked in the hotel industry and others are professionals in travel and related sectors badly hit by the pandemic.

Suren Swaminathan, chairman of the Sri Lankan Business Council said they stepped in to cover the workers' living expenses and rental costs over past few months.

“There are so many who are desperate,” he said

“Almost everybody on Tuesday's flight had lost their job. We helped people with no place to go and required a place to stay."

Community volunteers who work with the Sri Lankan consulate in Dubai said another 500 citizens are waiting to be sent home. Courtesy: SAHANA
More flights were being organised in the coming weeks to repatriate other Sri Lankan workers.

Former lifeguard Suranga Anuradha, 40, is grateful for the support. He worked in hotels across Dubai since 2013 but lost his job early this year.

Mr Anuradha was among a group that slept in a park in Satwa for five days in August.

“I had no money. That was my situation until someone gave me a number for Sahana. They saved my life.

"I could not believe that I got lunch, dinner, water, juice and milk in the shelter for two months."

Mr Anuradha plans to return to the UAE if he finds a job.

“The situation is bad in every country. I am happy because I can go home now but I want to come back,” he said.

Benhar de Alwies, 29, worked in a pharmacy in Colombo and paid an agent 200,000 Sri Lankan rupees ($1,080) to find him a similar job in the Emirates.

Sri Lankan workers at a shelter in Dubai. Courtesy: SAHANA
Sri Lankan workers at a shelter in Dubai.

He said he was duped into working in an Ajman supermarket and was not paid regularly.

He lived in a mosque for a few months until he heard about the welfare group.

UAE authorities have cautioned job seekers not to enter the country on visit visas to look for work.

“Now I know that I must not come to Dubai on a visit visa. The next time I will come when I get a company visa,” he said.

Isthiaq Raziq, a co-ordinator with Sahana, said the community prepared home-cooked meals and arranged deliveries from restaurants.

“We have been working with the consulate and the business council to get people out of the parks and into shelters," he said.

“Most people are on visit visas, others lost their jobs and were evicted from their accommodation by employers. Some are on reduced salaries and cannot afford to pay rent.

"We are trying to help as many as we can.”

He said more workers were in need of further support.

The group has distributed daily meals to 10,000 Sri Lankan workers and 250 families since March and supported babies and mothers stuck in the country.

Updated: November 11, 2020 04:10 PM

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