Sharjah International Airport looks exactly like you would expect for an airport in the United Arab Emirates: drop boxes collect money for your favorite Islamic charities and Qur’anic societies; security checkpoints have separate rooms for women to preserve modesty during frisking; and more than half of the airport is “under construction,” an adequate description of the desert boomtown itself. There is only one thing missing: Arabs. Instead, I am surrounded by Sri Lankans.
Thousands of Sri Lankans (mostly women) pass through Sharjah every month, flying on the emirate’s budget airline AirArabia to fan out across the Middle East. But these women aren’t here to ride the camels or see the pyramids; they make up Sri Lanka’s legion of migrant laborers, and the Middle East is their biggest market. According to the International Organization for Migration, more than 1.5 million Sri Lankans work in the Middle East, mostly as domestic servants. What started as a trickle in the 1970s has quickly become a pillar of Sri Lanka’s economy—in 2005, annual remittances from Sri Lankan migrant workers totaled almost $2 billion, surpassing tea exports as the country’s top source of foreign income. As I wait in the Sharjah airport for my flight to Sri Lanka, I strike up a conversation with the two Sri Lankan women sitting next to me. One of them, a twenty-year old from a village three hours outside of Colombo, has been working in Lebanon for over two years. This is her first time home since arriving in the Middle East and, she admits after looking over both shoulders, one of the first times away from the watchful eye of her “madam.” But she is thankful—most domestic workers don’t get to come home at all during their time working abroad. Her friend sitting next to her has it a bit easier—her employer allows her to go to church once a week, where she has the opportunity to socialize with fellow Sri Lankans. But both are quick to emphasize how lucky they have been, considering the horror stories they have heard from friends. The Arab world has become infamous in Sri Lanka for its horrible treatment of Sri Lankan migrant laborers. Though usually happening behind closed doors, human rights organizations have begun to chart abuse to foreign house servants—including widespread physical and sexual abuse. Even those that are not assaulted in the traditional sense are often forced to work seven days a week with no holidays, their passports confiscated upon arrival in order to keep them prisoners. If they try to run away, their employers often accuse them of stealing and, when inevitably caught by the police, they are thrown in jail with scant legal representation. Some Middle Eastern countries have taken measures to protect these foreign workers. Lebanon, for example, has formed a task force comprised of representatives from the Lebanese government and security forces, United Nations, International Labor Organization, foreign embassies, and local NGOs to confront the issue. But since many of these workers are undocumented and most abuse happens in private homes, there is little governments can do in practice. Abuse has become so prevalent in countries like Lebanon that the certain governments (such as India and Bangladesh) have barred their women from traveling there to work.
Such restrictions are not an option for Sri Lanka, whose migrant laborers are yet another casualty of the country’s 20-year civil war. Jobs are scarce and salaries rarely support the average Sri Lankan family. Women are forced to turn to the dozens of foreign employment agencies and sell themselves into servitude for upwards of three years. “People move on their own two legs, so restricting labor isn’t like restricting tea,” said David Soysa, director of the Migrant Workers Centre in Sri Lanka. “People are going for better prospects, so if they want to go, there is little the government can do to stop them.”
The situation does not look to improve any time soon. Combined with years of war and the effects of the 2004 tsunami, Sri Lanka’s increasing reliance on remittance payments from migrant labor does little to bolster its development prospects. According to a new study by the Marga Institute for Development Research in Sri Lanka, over 50% of these remittances travel back to Sri Lanka through unofficial channels, causing substantial foreign exchange leakage and depriving the economy of much-needed foreign currency reserves. The report also emphasizes that the use of unofficial channels, rather than banks, encourages Sri Lankans to spend the money they receive from abroad rather than depositing it in savings accounts—thus perpetuating the cycle of poverty.
The tales of abuse that filter back to Sri Lanka have not stemmed the tide of migrant laborers to the Middle East. Both of the women I am sitting with in the Sharjah airport had heard such stories before they left Sri Lanka, but came anyway. They call over a third friend, who decided to come back to Lebanon even after being heavily abused by her first employer. “My husband is drunk all the time because he cannot find a job, so he abuses me too,” she says matter-of-factly. “What options do I have?”