It’s very early in the morning around eight. A
queue of women and men of different age groups stand in front of
the Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment, Nawala. Some of them
have come for interviews to go for employment in Korea. Others
have come to pay the registration fee for employment abroad and
yet others to pay insurance fees and various other matters
pertaining to foreign employment.
Chathuranga from Tissamaharama had left for
Colombo the previous night around 11.30, Sandamalee from
Bolawatta, Wennappuwa left early morning around 4.30 and Zeenam
with her husband from Beruwala left around 6.30 a.m and many
more from different parts of the country to reach the SLBFE
SLBFE is housed in a plush new building. As one
enters it one is impressed by the sheer show of flashy lights,
branches of banks, a Nena Sala IT centre and the reception area.
On the right side is a board displaying the statistics of the
number of people expected to be employed abroad in the current
year – 220,800.
In the reception area is a graphic display of
the units of the Bureau showing where each section is housed.
There is music coming from somewhere probably to put the visitor
at ease in the morning as he/she enters this wonderful place, a
government body with a different look. How different?
But Rizana Nafeek who was sentenced to death in
the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for allegedly killing a four month
old infant of her employers also had come here once about two
years back to get her registration, insurance and other services
with much hope for a better future. Yet today she is languishing
in the death row of Riyadh awaiting some intervention like an
appeal for reprieve from her hopeless fate.
"We do not see any fault of the Employment
Agency that sent Rizana to KSA on a passport carrying a false
age and date of birth. It is the Immigration Department that had
issued her passport and we only check the passport which is a
valid legal document,"H.Bopitiya General Manger SLBFE says.
Is the SLBFE unaware that a number of foreign
employment agents are notorious for various illegal operations
including impersonation of foreign job seekers, charging
exorbitant fees from poor women or others who seek employment
abroad. But this official thinks that it was the Immigration
Department that had made the mistake of issuing a passport to
Rizana overstating her age by 6 years when she was only 17 years
However it is common knowledge that forged birth
certificates or other documents are procured by ruthless
employment agents whose only motivating force is money, more
money and money alone. Poor men or women who want a job abroad
to escape the vicious circle of poverty would go to any extent,
even mortgaging their only property like a small block of land
or a small house to raise the money to pay the employment agents
who could easily be compared to sharks.
However Bopitiya says the SLBFE is doing its
maximum to get the appeal made for Rizana in her court case
appeal. The Asian Human Rights Council an NGO which is
supporting people like Rizana are prepared to pay the legal fees
in KSA in her appeal.
Rizana was tried by a Saudi Court for allegedly
killing a four month old infant of the household where she was
working and she has confessed that she committed the crime. But
she later retracted the confession and said it was made under
duress. Rizana Nafeek was tried under Sharia Law and she has to
make her appeal by tomorrow (16).
The Foreign Ministry said the Sri Lanka Embassy
in Riyadh had signed an agreement with a Saudi firm of
Attorneys, Kaped Fahad – Al Shamari to file the appeal in the
higher Saudi Court. The legal fee is the equivalent of 4.5
million rupees approximately.
President Mahinda Rajapakse on hearing that
Rizana was sent by an employment agency using a false passport
directed the Minister of Foreign Employment Promotion to suspend
the labour licence of the agency and institute an immediate
investigation into the matter.
Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Hussein
Bhaila who was to leave for KSA yesterday (14) with Rizana’s
parents and a senior Foreign Ministry official said he was
hoping to talk to religious leaders in Riyadh to ask for
clemency for the girl as the laws of KSA permitted only the
parents of the infant who was alleged to have been killed to
He said he hoped the religious leaders of KSA
will be able to ask for a mercy pardon.
The facts of the case are that Rizana, a poor
girl from Mutur had come to the agency like thousands of others
from remote villages, clueless about the world that was waiting
to exploit flesh and money of the poorest of poor. The agent
from Dehiwala who had sent her abroad surely knew the modus
operandi of expert forgers and procurers of bogus birth
certificates or other legal document. Surely, and not a poor
village girl probably with a very little education coming all
the way from remote Mutur knew how to get a false date inserted
in a passport.
But the SLBFE seems to be holding a brief for
the employment agents though they could not say whether the
agent who sent Rizana was not the culprit behind the forgery.
Deputy Minister Bhaila said the ministry will
inquire from the District Registrar of Births what Rizana’s
actual date of birth was and will also find out how a forged
birth certificate if it was produced was made available to her.
Additional Controller of Immigration and
Emigration Chulananda Perera said an inquiry has been instituted
into the forgery of Rizana’s passport.
He said any person who migrates to the Middle
East to work as a housemaid had to undergo a two weeks training
at the SLFBE Training Centre. During the two weeks the SLFBE had
enough time to verify whether she was actually a teenager though
she held a passport stating she was 6 years older. It was not
possible for them to not to have seen that she was a much
younger person than the age given on her passport.
Rizana’s parents were issued passports on
Thursday (12) to enable them to go to Riyadh with the Deputy
Minister Bhaila. He also said Rizana’s mother too had had a
passport earlier that she had lost during the tsunami. They were
very poor people who could not afford to pay Rs.10,000 fine to
obtain a new passport with the fine for losing the old one.
He said he had verified the details of their
story with the Divisional Secretary of Mutur who confirmed that
they were affected by the tsunami and were poor people. Now
Rizana’s parents will be in another country under another law
and will be hoping their daughter who wanted to overcome poverty
could be freed. But the poor people like them who were affected
by the tsunami are now under another bigger wave. Could they
overcome this one?
The display at the SLBFE front office says its
mission is to "Achieve organizational excellence whilst
promoting and developing foreign employment markets, regulating
and facilitating the industry, protecting the migrant workers
and ensuring contribution to the national economy."
What good intentions, but some of the poor rural
folk like Rizana Nafeek have found that the way to hell was also
paved with good intentions.
There are about 1.5 million employed abroad and
sixty percent of them are women employed as housemaids in West
Asia. And we are making these women earn our foreign exchange.