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Sri Lankan Migrants Risking Lives in Search of Work, warns Report - 2003-11-23

The Geneva-based International Organization for Migration says countless thousands of people in Sri Lanka are putting their lives at risk by using smugglers to help them emigrate to find work abroad.

The International Organization for Migration says there are many legal ways for Sri Lankans to go abroad in search of work so they do not have to expose themselves to the risks and dangers of irregular migration.

IOM spokesman Jean-Philippe Chauzy says many people have died while being smuggled to foreign countries. He notes cases of people drowning when their leaky boats have sunk or of migrants suffocating in airtight containers.

In addition, Mr. Chauzy says migrants who survive the hazardous journey often get caught up in exploitative networks.

"Either as unskilled domestic workers suffering from various abuses," he said. "Also, associated to the risks of trafficking. In other words, women ending up in forced prostitution networks in various countries either in Europe or the Arab States or in other parts of the world."

The International Organization for Migration estimates about one million Sri Lankans currently are working abroad legally, and the numbers are growing. Most are employed in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Lebanon.

Despite the legal options for labor migration, Mr. Chauzy says thousands of Sri Lankans look to smugglers to help them emigrate to find work abroad, mainly in Europe. As a result, he says many fall into the hands of criminal gangs.

"The important fact to bear in mind is that 65 percent of those migrants are women and the vast majority of them are employed in unskilled domestic jobs," he said. "And because of their gender, they are probably more exposed to the risks of falling prey to trafficking networks."

Sri Lanka does not require visas for nationals from the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation. As a consequence, Mr. Chauzy says Sri Lanka has become a transit country for irregular migration, notably from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. He says people from these countries use Sri Lanka as a stopover for travel on to destinations mainly in Europe and Australia.

As part of its information campaign, Mr. Chauzy says IOM has set up a telephone hotline to give advice to people considering emigrating. It also is distributing leaflets and using public service announcements to make people aware of their legal options for going abroad.