Many Sri Lankans seek work and easy money in the Gulf, the Middle East, Malaysia and Singapore. However, the poorly educated and the unskilled have become the victims of human trafficking, including prostitution and forced labour. A Sister of the Good Shepherd who works with migrants bears witness to the problem. For her, Sri Lankans have a right "to find work and earn a living in their country."
"Human trafficking is one of the most cruel and heinous crimes that can be inflicted on another human being. Not only do victims go through hardships, but they also come out of it deeply changed. Their entire world crumbles around them, the family in the first place," said Sister Sunila Thomas Rgs, a member of Our Lady of Charity of the Good Shepherd, one of the few groups in Sri Lanka that works with victims of human trafficking.
"Our work is directed at people of every ethnicity, religion and social class," she told AsiaNews. "For us, everyone is a human being, sons and daughters of God."
As far as human trafficking goes, Sri Lanka is the point of arrival and departure for many victims. Emigration abroad places men, women and children places at the mercy of those who run this trade.
Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Jordan, Bahrain, Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan, the United Arab Emirates, Malaysia and Singapore are the preferred places of destination for those who want to work and improve their lives and those of their family.
However, enticed by the promise of employment as construction or garment workers, as store clerks or domestic staff, many end up in a business where their papers are taken from them, and where they are subjected to threats of deportation or detention, sexual abuse or forced labour.
Before they leave, many men and women - often poorly educated or with no particular qualifications - take on debt with phoney employment agencies or individual agents, to pay high "transfer" fees. When they realise the scam, they are already in the foreign country and forced to stay and accept the "rules" of the trade, hoping one day that they can repay the debt and return home.
"I started this mission in April 2014," Sister Susila told AsiaNews, "when the institute sent me to Singapore. There, in the centre run by the Sisters of the Good Shepherd, I met with about 30 young women, from various countries. Three of them were Sri Lankan Buddhists, from small villages. All of them had turned to prostitution."
The nun recalls one of them in particular. "She was a very young woman. In Sri Lanka, she worked as a massage therapist. She wanted to earn more money, and so decided to go to Singapore. Here she met a man who introduced himself as an employment agent. He showed her beautiful pictures of the city and of the life she could have. He charged her a bundle and organised her transfer for a two year stay."
Once in Singapore however, "this agent handed her over to other people and disappeared into thin air. She ended up in the prostitution racket. Years later, when she found out about our centre, she asked for our help to get out of the trade."
In this facility, the nuns "first take care of the victims' emotional and psychological needs. "Many of them come out devastated by this experience. They feel worthless, outcasts. Some want to commit suicide.
"We do a lot of therapy and counselling in order to bring out their talents and their abilities. We explain that their lives have value and that they are important and necessary for society. Doctors and specialists work alongside us in this work.
"When they feel that they are back on their feet and ready to re-enter the world, we let them go back to their families, but always with the knowledge that they can ask for help at any time."
Human trafficking, Sister Susila said, "can radically change the victims. They seek revenge; some have even tried to kill. This happens because people sell or mortgage their property to get money to emigrate. But when it all ends, they do not know how to repay their debts. Meanwhile, problems can emerge in the family."
Based on her experience, "it is not advisable for the unskilled and poorly educated, both men and women, to go abroad," she said. "In Sri Lanka, there should be a mechanism to allow these groups to find work and earn a living in their country. It is everyone's right."
"There should also be a programme to educate and change the attitude of those who want to emigrate for the sole purpose of making money in a short time. This is another reason they face big problems."
Through its various centres, the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity of the Good Shepherd "try to make people aware of the dark side of migration," she said. "We teach how to do short-term plans to those who want to go abroad and safely start a new life."