Sri Lanka gears up to send its workers abroad as virus threat eases

Sri Lanka gears up to send its workers abroad as virus threat eases
People wearing facemasks outside a shop in Colombo, Sri Lanka. (Shutterstock)
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Updated 01 June 2020

Sri Lanka gears up to send its workers abroad as virus threat eases

Sri Lanka gears up to send its workers abroad as virus threat eases
  • Billions in remittances affected by outbreak

COLOMBO: Sri Lanka will soon begin sending its workers back overseas as it further eases its COVID-19 measures and host countries start reopening their borders.

The estimated number of overseas Sri Lankan workers is 1.5 million and 1.2 million of these are in the Middle East, according to an official from the Bureau of Foreign Employment (SLBFE).

“The island had halted the process on March 13 due to the COVID-19 outbreak,” the bureau’s acting general manager, W.M.V Wansekera, told Arab News. “We will soon prepare to send them abroad with the opening of airports in the host countries.”

He hoped that the country would soon return to normality and once again be able to export its workforce, which is responsible for an estimated $7 billion in remittances every year.

The majority of the 1.2 million Sri Lankan workers in the Middle East - 80 percent - are stationed in Gulf countries such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait, and Qatar.

On May 26 the bureau sent a batch of 145 workers to Hong Kong – far lower than the 15,000 Lankan workers sent abroad on average every month – after they were stranded in the country during their annual vacation due to the lockdown, Jagath Batugedera, the bureau’s assistant general manager, told Arab News.

The director general of health services, Dr. Anil Jasinghe, said that his ministry had been able to keep the disease under control from April 30 and that zero cases had been recorded in the civilian population.

There were a few cases of infection in the Sri Lankan navy and 450 new cases among workers who had come back from Kuwait. As of Sunday a total of 1,620 diagnosed cases were reported, with 801 recoveries and 10 deaths.

Foreign Secretary Ravinatha Ariyasingha told Arab News that more than 38,983 workers in 143 countries had expressed an interest to return home to Sri Lanka, based on information gathered through the “Contact Sri Lanka” web portal from the Ministry of Foreign Relations.

Expatriates who spoke to Arab News said they were happy to be overseas. Mohammed Ali, an accountant working at a private firm in Riyadh, said Sri Lankan workers were “satisfied” with the new conditions laid out by the Kingdom.

“We have been staying here during good times, and we also like to stay in these trying times too,” he told Arab News. He added that, while there had been a 25 percent reduction in salary, workers were advised to only work six hours. He called this an “acceptable move” and said another “good thing” was that there had been no retrenchment of workers due to the coronavirus crisis.

Expatriate Mohammed Risqi, who holds an executive position in a Kuwaiti establishment, said that people wished to continue with their jobs during the global crisis.

“Those who are staying here illegally or have lost their regular jobs are keen to go home because staying in Kuwait is a waste of time,” he told Arab News.


Academic held in Iran for two years says imprisonment pushed her to brink of suicide

Academic held in Iran for two years says imprisonment pushed her to brink of suicide
Updated 24 min 18 sec ago

Academic held in Iran for two years says imprisonment pushed her to brink of suicide

Academic held in Iran for two years says imprisonment pushed her to brink of suicide

CANBERRA: A British-Australian academic who spent two years detained in Iran said on Tuesday she was kept in solitary confinement for seven months, in what she described as "psychological torture" that left her contemplating suicide.
Kylie Moore-Gilbert, who was detained in Iran in 2018 and sentenced to 10 years in prison on espionage charges, was released late last year in exchange for three Iranians who had been detained abroad.
Speaking for the first time publicly, Moore-Gilbert said she was kept in a 4 square meter cell with only a telephone to communicate with prison guards.
"You go completely insane. It is so damaging. I felt physical pain," Moore-Gilbert told Sky News Australia.
Moore-Gilbert, a specialist in Middle East politics at the University of Melbourne, said her mental health deteriorated after two weeks.
"I thought if I could, I would kill myself."
After nine months imprisonment, Moore-Gilbert was sentenced to 10 years in prison, which she sought to oppose through a series of hunger strikes.
In her most daring opposition, however, Moore-Gilbert said she once attempted to escape.
"One day I was just like, ‘You know what? I’m going to do it. I have nothing to lose’," Moore-Gilbert told Sky News.
"There were spikes on part of the wall, so I just took some socks with me and put them over my hands and then grabbed onto them, hoping they weren’t too sharp."
Once on the roof of the prison, Moore-Gilbert said she could have scaled down the walls and made a run for a nearby town. However, she said she decided not to proceed as she was in a prison uniform, didn't speak the local language and feared the consequences of being caught.
Eventually she was released in a prisoner swap and back in Australia, Moore-Gilbert said she is focused on her recovery.


Families cry foul over Myanmar’s crackdown

Families cry foul over Myanmar’s crackdown
Updated 09 March 2021

Families cry foul over Myanmar’s crackdown

Families cry foul over Myanmar’s crackdown
  • Activists accuse security forces of detaining family members of suspects

YANGON: Protests erupted in several cities across Myanmar on Sunday, with several more planned for today, after an official from the party of deposed leader Aung San Suu Kyi died overnight after “fainting” in police custody.

The family of Khin Maung Latt, a 58-year-old Muslim man from Yangon, however, rejected the claims saying that he was healthy “with no injuries at all” when police detained him on Saturday night.

“We were informed by the police on Sunday morning that he had died after fainting and that the body was being kept at a military hospital in Yangon,” one of Latt’s relatives, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisal, told Arab News.

Soon, Family members, accompanied by a lawyer and community leader, went to the hospital and found Latt’s head “covered”
in blood.

“His body had multiple injuries, especially the head. He was healthy and had no injuries at all when soldiers took him” she said.

Latt, a member of the ruling National League for Democracy party (NLD), was among several detained by police who, reinforced by soldiers, moved throughout Yangon, firing shots and arresting dissidents.

Anti-military protests reached fever pitch after the deaths of dozens of protesters, with rally organizers saying “security forces were intent on breaking the back of the anti-coup movement with wanton violence and sheer brutality.”

According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), at least 50 people have died during the security forces’ recent crackdown, with 1,790 arrested, charged or sentenced during the anti-coup movement, which began on Feb. 1.

While the number of detained persons remains unknown, it included Latt, other protest leaders, striking government staff and members of vigilante groups guarding neighborhoods.

AAPP spokesperson Tun Kyi, who helped Latt’s family with the funeral process, said that it was “possible” that Latt’s death was as a result of torture.

“Citing the injuries on his body, he was beaten and tortured,” Kyi told Arab News

“Troops took him alive and returned the dead body. This is the democracy promised by the military dictatorship,” he added.

Myanmar has been in a state of unrest for more than a month after military leaders seized power, overthrowing the civilian government led by Suu Kyi.

The coup followed a landslide win by  the  NLD in the November general election, but the army rejected the results, citing poll irregularities and fraud.

During the takeover, the military detained key government leaders — including Suu Kyi, President Win Myint, and several prominent activists — and declared a state of emergency, along with an announcement that the country would be under military rule for at least a year.

Myanmar has witnessed widespread protests ever since, with thousands ignoring a ban on public gatherings.

Yangon, the country’s largest city, witnessed one of the deadliest incidents last week after security forces opened fire on the mostly peaceful protesters in the North Okalapa township’s outskirts, killing at least 38, according to a UN report.

Witnesses said that after increasing their crackdown on anti-coup protesters, security forces were escalating late-night raids in cities and towns across the country as well.

Tun Kyi said security forces were “acting lawlessly” during the crackdown and night raids, adding that in many cases, “when the targeted persons could not be found, they detained family members instead.

“They (security forces) took family members as hostages, looted and destroyed the private properties. They are acting like terrorists,” he added.

Latt served as a campaign leader for Sithu Maung, one of the NLD’s two Muslim lawmakers, who contested and won a seat in the lower house of Parliament representing Yangon’s Pabedan township.

His father, Peter, a former political prisoner and member of the NLD party in Yangon’s Hlaing township, was detained on Sunday night during a raid.

“They took my father hostage,” said Maung, who was issued an arrest warrant by the junta for his involvement in the Committee Representing Phyidaungsu Hluttaw which ousted lawmakers formed to represent the country’s Parliament after the Feb. 1 military coup.

He expressed grave concern over his father’s situation, especially after Khin Maung Latt’s death. 

“Khin Maung Latt was like my uncle. Now he has died of torture during overnight detention, so I am greatly concerned (that something) similar will happen to my father,” he told Arab News over the phone from a safe place on Monday.

“The junta is using all possible means to make people bow to them, but we will never let it happen. They have a gun; we have unity,” he said.

Maung added that the junta was responding to the opposition movement with “panic” because “they know they are going to lose anyway.

“After more than one month of the coup, it has not been recognized by most foreign countries while facing opposition from all sectors in the country. Its administrative mechanism has not functioned yet due to the non-recognizing and non-participation of the government staff and people,” he said.

Despite the deadliest crackdown by security forces, the anti-coup movement is gaining momentum across the country.

In Yangon, tensions were high after anti-coup protesters regrouped after being forcefully dispersed by stun grenades, tear gas, rubber bullets and, eventually, live ammunition.

Meanwhile, the Hlaing Thar Yar township of Yangon, where most of the areas garment factories are located, has yet to experience violence despite daily protests by thousands of people, mostly industrial workers.

“The forces mainly focus on cracking down on the protests in other townships, but we anticipate our turn would come soon,” Thar Zaw, an activist and a protest leader, told Arab News.

Striking workers, who had previously joined the demonstration in major protest sites across Yangon, including those stationed in Hlaing Thar Yar, said they were “prepared to defend themselves against security forces” with makeshift barricades on the streets.

“The protests here are even bigger now,” Thar Zaw told Arab News.

The country’s biggest trade unions have also called for an extended, nationwide strike until civilian rule is restored.

Moe Sandar Myint, founder of the Federation of General Worker Myanmar, said the garment sector was “already in danger since the coup.

“As long as the junta rules the country, there is no worker rights. So we, garment workers and industrial workers would continue the movement against the junta,” she told Arab News.

Myint has been in hiding since Feb. 6 after organizing and participating in an anti-coup rally in Yangon, the first mass protest since the coup took place.

“We are determined to fight till the end,” she said.


Hungary closes stores, schools to curb surge due to variants

Hungary closes stores, schools to curb surge due to variants
Updated 09 March 2021

Hungary closes stores, schools to curb surge due to variants

Hungary closes stores, schools to curb surge due to variants
  • The number of patients on ventilators in Hungarian hospitals has more than doubled in the last two weeks

BUDAPEST: Hungarians on Monday awoke to a new round of strict lockdown measures aimed at slowing a record-breaking wave of COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths that are among the worst in the world.

A rapid rise in pandemic indicators since early February prompted Hungary’s government to announce the new restrictions, including closing most stores for two weeks and kindergartens and primary schools until April 7. Most services are also required to cease operations, and the government urged businesses to allow employees to work from home. Grocery stores, pharmacies, gas stations and tobacconists can stay open.

Hungary’s high schools have been remote learning since November and its bars, restaurants and gyms have been closed since then as well.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has warned that the strain on the country’s hospitals will soon surpass any other period in Hungary since the pandemic began, and that failing to impose harsher restrictions now would result in a “tragedy.”

“The next two weeks will be difficult ... but if we want to open by Easter, we’ve got to close down,” Orban said Friday on a Facebook video.

The number of patients on ventilators in Hungarian hospitals has more than doubled in the last two weeks, with 806 patients on Monday compared to the previous peak of 674 in early December.

Deaths have also risen sharply. With nearly 16,000 confirmed deaths in a country of fewer than 10 million, Hungary has the 8th worst death rate per 1 million inhabitants in the world, according to Johns Hopkins University. The number of COVID-19 patients being treated in hospitals is also likely to break its previous record on Tuesday.

“We can see that the third wave is spreading very forcefully, mainly due to (virus) variants,” Hungary’s chief medical officer Cecilia Muller said Sunday. “We can’t do anything else now but break the
chain of infections.”

The new restrictions came as many Hungarian businesses were already struggling to make ends meet as shoppers stayed at home amid the surging cases. Zoltan Suto, the founder and owner of Hungarian fashion brand Griff Collection, said revenues were down 70 percent  through the winter thanks to cautious consumers avoiding crowds at shopping malls.

“I can’t pay rent. I can’t pay salaries or social contributions, not to mention the taxes,” Suto said, adding that a 50 percent  commercial tax break offered by the government meant little in the absence of revenues.

Last year’s pandemic-induced economic recession, which saw a 5.1 percent  decrease in Hungary’s GDP, led to the shuttering of five of Griff Collection’s 10 stores in Hungary, which employ around 80 people. Suto says his business suffered a loss of 200-300 million Hungarian forints ($645,000-$968,000) in 2020, and that the crisis will only deepen if the two-week closure that begins Monday is extended further.

Such economic pain has made Hungary’s government, which is facing an election next year, reluctant until now to introduce restrictions on businesses, even as COVID-19 cases and deaths have skyrocketed since early February.

Many parents scrambled over the weekend to alter work schedules and arrange for childcare, including Gyongyver and Szilard Brasnyo, a couple in Budapest who have two young daughters.

“We are lucky, my parents are coming over to help us out with the kids,” said Gyongyver, adding that her parents live in Serbia, which has one of the highest vaccination rates in Europe, and have already received two vaccine shots.

Szilard, who works from home, said they felt “exhausted” after a year of raising the children during a pandemic. But he was optimistic that Hungary’s ambitious vaccination program — which has given more than 1 million Hungarians a vaccine shot, the second-highest vaccination rate in the 27-nation European Union — would soon bring life back to normal.

Hungary has obtained vaccines from Russia and China as well as those approved by the EU.

“We’re really looking forward to having a much safer environment for all of us,” Szilard said.


Faith communities urged to work together to protect women

Faith communities urged to work together to protect women
Updated 09 March 2021

Faith communities urged to work together to protect women

Faith communities urged to work together to protect women
  • ‘Pandemic has brought forth gender-based violence statistical explosion,’ UN official says at forum attended by Arab News

LONDON: Speakers at the Higher Committee of Human Fraternity’s (HCHF) Women’s 2021 Forum, attended by Arab News, have urged religious communities to work together in tackling gender violence and the coronavirus pandemic.

This came in the wake of the pope’s visit to Iraq to meet Christians and leaders of other faiths, including top Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, which several speakers highlighted as an example of the power of cooperation.

Irina Bokova, former director-general of UNESCO, recalled that the HCHF’s establishment came after the signing of a document of human fraternity by the pope and Egypt’s Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Ahmed El-Tayeb in 2019, which urged “reconciliation of all the world’s citizens for the sake of universal peace.”

Azza Karam, senior advisor on culture at the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), called the document “historic in every possible sense,” on account of it being a “commitment from two leading men of two of the largest religious establishments in the world. The fact that they can reiterate these points in a document in which they commit to the fraternity of humanity in and of itself is a remarkably valuable point.”

Karam, though, said a growing movement toward greater religious tolerance and cooperation at higher levels had been curtailed by COVID-19.

“What we see is (an) epidemic of gender-based violence that has taken (on) massive proportions, because we’re talking about a shrinking civil society space (where) those who help those gender-based violence survivors are civic institutions, before the governmental ones step in,” she added.

Karam said problems remain in responding to crises, from the pandemic to gender-based violence, because of a lack of coordination between secular and religious institutions, as well as between organizations belonging to different faiths.

“Civil society institutions are our future. Secular and religious civil spaces often operate in distinction from one other. There are very rare moments when we see a society convene the religious and the secular. What COVID-19 has helped us do is force us to look beyond the parameters and the boundaries of our traditional partnerships,” she added.

“We can’t afford to let the religions respond to humanitarian emergencies separately. We must encourage and support them to work together with one another, and to work with the secular institutions.”

UNFPA Executive Director Natalia Kanem agreed, raising the specter of gender-based violence as an area where religious communities need to do more to help women, especially with rates of violence heightened by the circumstances caused by the pandemic.

“People of faith are called to uphold the values the HCHF represents. My concern is to make clear — there’s a pandemic within a pandemic that began ages and millennia ago. The respect and value of women must start with the girl child who must be encouraged to understand that she is the equal of everyone on the planet, and that her aspirations are important,” she said.

“This pandemic has brought forth a gender-based violence statistical explosion, but long before the pandemic, the truth is that on average one in three females experienced some form of gender-based violence or harassment during her lifetime,” she added.

“The UN … is working deeply with governments … to support responses. The increasing rates of domestic violence have been a challenge, calling on all of us to adapt very quickly,” Kanem said.

“You can imagine if someone is in lockdown, locked in with an abusive partner, the ability to contact someone, have someone visit, have a hotline, can be lifesaving. We’re paying attention to the prevention of violence, and in this sense I think the community of faith has the responsibility to de-stigmatize women and girls who come forward to complain, to say that they’re uneasy or that something is wrong,” she added.

“Girls out of school are much more available for child marriage, the promulgation of female genital mutilation, and other things that can be done to them against their will,” Kanem said, adding that it is “very important for communities, traditional leaders and faith leaders” to do more to stop violence against women.


UK politicians highlight Iran’s ‘appalling’ treatment of women

UK politicians highlight Iran’s ‘appalling’ treatment of women
Updated 09 March 2021

UK politicians highlight Iran’s ‘appalling’ treatment of women

UK politicians highlight Iran’s ‘appalling’ treatment of women
  • Parliamentarians slam ‘brutal theocracy’ at International Women’s Day event attended by Arab News
  • European governments urged to take tougher stance against Tehran

LONDON: British parliamentarians have denounced Iran’s “appalling” treatment of women on International Women’s Day, and urged their government and European counterparts to take a tougher stance against Tehran.

At an online event on Monday hosted by the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) and attended by Arab News, politicians from the UK’s House of Commons and House of Lords — most of them members of the British Committee for Iran Freedom — said women in Iran live as second-class citizens under a system of gender apartheid.

“When I look at what the women of Iran have had to endure in terms of their rights, their health, their roles in society in general, I realize how limited their rights are and how brave they are when they object,” said Amber Rudd, an MP and former Cabinet minister.

“In Iran, women have to endure a religious regime that gives them few rights. They don’t have the freedom to choose how to live their life, to the law, or to welfare benefits to survive.”

She praised the tenacity and courage of Iranian women for the central role they have played in overtly and covertly resisting the regime.

“In Iran, it’s so much more difficult to challenge the regime — difficult, illegal and above all dangerous. But it’s fascinating to see how the women of Iran do fight back,” Rudd added.

Invoking the motto of International Women’s Day 2021, she said Iranian women “choose to challenge.”

Conservative MP Matthew Offord said he believes “women in Iran deserve support and greater international recognition as they take on and challenge the brutal theocracy.”

He added: “This is a regime that treats half of its population, the women, in such an appalling way by depriving them not only of their fundamental right to freedom, but also their dignity. It’s not a regime that can be trusted.”

The politicians had a clear message for the British government: Stand up to Tehran, and do not tolerate the human rights abuses that have been rampant since the Islamic Republic’s inception.

They highlighted various egregious examples of abuses against women committed by Tehran — but the case of Zahra Esmaili, they said, stood out for its cruelty.

Esmaili, a mother of two, was sentenced to death after pleading guilty to murdering her physically and sexually abusive husband — a senior intelligence member.

She took the blame for her daughter, who it is widely believed shot him as he was assaulting her.

Esmaili died of a heart attack in February after witnessing 16 hangings before her own. Security forces, her lawyer said, hung her body anyway.

Maryam Rajavi, head of the NCRI, said Esmaili’s case is shocking but not surprising. “The number of women executed during (President Hassan) Rouhani’s term has reached 114, making Iran the world record holder in executing women,” she added.

“The regime wants to preserve its rule through repression. However, Iranian women play critical roles in challenging the regime and pushing for its overthrow. Women are Tehran’s prime victims, and they therefore have greater motivation to end this regime.”