Sri Lankan housemaids in Saudi appeal for help
- 1 October 2011
- From the section South Asia
"Please, sir... help us to go back to Sri Lanka," one woman after another cries and pleads over the phone from a detention centre in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
I cannot see these women but I hear them fighting to reach the mobile phone that belongs to the inmate that I am on the phone with.
Thangavelu Sarojini, a young Tamil woman, says she was tortured by her employer.
"I still have wounds and scars in my hands, neck, legs. They beat me, pinched me and burnt me," she says from the Olaya detention camp where hundreds of migrant women from south and southeast Asia are held.
Their crime, they say, was running away from employers to escape physical, sexual or psychological abuse. They are all now classified as illegal immigrants under Saudi law.
"I was not paid for one-and-a-half years, they tried to kill me, then I fled to the embassy," Sarojini tells me.
Hundreds of thousands of Sri Lankan women arrive in the Middle East every year and they are a major foreign revenue earner for the island. But many claim to be ill-treated, tortured, or not paid for the work.
In one notorious case in August 2010, 24 nails were removed from the body of LP Ariyawathie, a 49-year-old Sri Lankan domestic worker in Saudi. Saudi authorities have pledged to investigate her case but there has been no reported progress in the investigation.
'Imprisoned and unpaid'
But it is not only physical abuse that forced these hapless women to flee their employers.
Kusuma Nandani, a mother-of-two who has not returned to Sri Lanka since 1993, says she was not paid by her employer for at least 15 years.
She says that she suffered stress and depression because her employers did not allow her to keep in touch with her husband, son and daughter in Sri Lanka.
As Kusuma Nandani cannot read or write, she was was only able to write a few letters - and then only with the help of other Sri Lankans.
One day, she was told by the employer that she would not be paid anymore after she forgot to hand over pocket money to the children before dropping them off at school.
From then, she says she was imprisoned by her employers for more than a decade. Rescued by the Sri Lankan embassy officials in Riyadh in 2009 after a tip-off, she has been a detainee at the camp since then.
Her daughter says she is puzzled as to why the Sri Lankan embassy authorities have not been able to send her mother home even though Kusuma was granted an exit visa some time ago.
WG Mala Mangalika is another maid who fled alleged ill-treatment. She says she was told to work without pay for more than a year because her employer paid a Sri Lankan agency nearly 7,000 riyal ($1,866).
Now she is facing a lawsuit filed by the employer.
"The employer says he has paid to the agency for four years so he would not allow me to go back," says Mala Mangalika.
Detention centre inmates say that although Sri Lankan officials helped when they first arrived at the embassy, they are concerned about the delay in sending them back home.
Apart from those in the camp, hundreds more abused maids are currently staying in an embassy hostel.
Their plight is worsened because they become illegal immigrants as soon as they leave their employers, the legal "sponsor" for their work permits.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) has long been campaigning for more protection for domestic workers in the Middle East and has called for migrant domestic workers to be included into local labour laws so that they are better protected.
"My legs are still swollen and blackened after I fell from upstairs," Mala Senananayake weeps as she grabs the phone from others in the queue in Olaya camp, in Saudi Arabia.
"I have no one in Sri Lanka. My parents are gone, my husband is trying to divorce me, I have only daughter who doesn't know who to approach to get help."
"Please sir, please help me to go back to Sri Lanka," she repeatedly begs me.
The labour officer at the Sri Lankan embassy in Riyadh told the BBC that the files of the detainees at Olaya camp have been transferred to the Sri Lanka Foreign Employment Bureau (SLFEB) in Colombo.
But SLFEB head Kingsley Ranawaka did not answer repeated telephone calls to get a response.
In an open letter to the governments of Saudi Arabia, Indonesia and Sri Lanka, HRW urged them to "ensure a timely and comprehensive response" to alleged abuse and implement "systemic reforms to prevent such abuses in future".
It has urged Saudi Arabia to "prosecute alleged perpetrators, allow victims to return to their home countries before the trial and seek both criminal penalties and financial compensation".
It also wants the cancellation of the Kafala system that requires the consent of the employer to repatriate migrant workers.
The BBC has had no response from the media office of the embassy of Saudi Arabia in London.