Birds of Passage

Labour Migration from Sri Lanka to the Middle East

Every year more than a million Asians migrate to the Middle East on temporary labour contracts. They come from Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Korea, The Philippines, Indonesia and Sri Lanka. The film Birds of Passage provides an authentic and sympathetic picture of the experiences of some migrants from Sri Lanka. It is estimated that in 1985 more than sixty thousand Sri Lankans migrated to the Gulf States.

Migration from Sri Lanka to the Middle East started later than from most other Asian countries. The Sri Lankan government elected in 1977 on a programme promising a free and open economy, was in urgent need of foreign exchange to finance its ambitious development projects. The obstacles to labour migration were removed and it was even positively encouraged. The problem was to find employment opportunities on the highly competitive international labour market. A gap was found: providing housemaids to Arab families in the Middle East. Most other Asian countries were unwilling to allow women to migrate abroad. Within a few years, hundreds of private employment agencies in Sri Lanka were recruiting housemaids and other workers for Arab labour contractors. The majority of the Sri Lankan migrants are poor, from the slums and shantytowns around Colombo, and peasants from the countryside. More than 65% are women, often married with small children.

In 1983, more than 1.3% of Sri Lanka’s population was working in the Middle East: a far higher percentage than from any other country in Asia. The money these migrants sent home has been estimated to amount to 272 million US dollars.

The film mainly focuses on migrant women, parachuted into Arab homes as housemaids. There is a wide cultural and social gap between these women and their Arab hosts. They have no language in common in which they can communicate. They live in the employer’s house and are not allowed out. They have to eat the food they prepare but do not enjoy. Sometimes they are forced to wear veils.

Many housemaids have reported periods of extreme isolation and distress. They are not protected by any labour laws: there are no fixed wages or working hours. Whether labour conditions are satisfactory depends on the generosity of the employer. But the film reveals that some employers are far from generous. Some housemaids are beaten or even sexually assaulted.

The film includes unique footage of the first encounter between some new arrivals, the Arab contractor and an employer.

Migration to the Middle East is a very controversial issue in Sri Lanka, especially when it involves women. No one denies that both the migrant and the family left behind often have to pay a heavy social and psychological price. But they have no choice.

(Note: the data and figures mentioned in the above text refer to the situation in the nineteen eighties.)

The video film Birds of Passage is made as part of the

Inter-University Cooperation Project for Training, Teaching and Research of the Department of Sociology, University of Colombo, Sri Lanka

and the

Institute of Cultural and Social Studies, University of Leiden, The Netherlands

Technical data:

Video / language: Sinhalese, Arabic and English / English subtitles / 55 minutes /

Sri Lanka, U.A.E. 1987/88

Producer / director: Louk Vreeswijk

Ask me for the link if you want to see the film

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