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No voting rights yet for overseas Sri Lankans


COLOMBO (UCAN): In April 2016, the Sri Lankan parliament appointed a committee to formulate ways to allow the 1.7 million Sri Lankans living and working overseas to have their say at elections.
Sri Lankan migrant workers and their supporters have been lobbying the government to implement laws that will allow them to vote from overseas, something that some in power appear reluctant to do.
The country has several elections for provincial councils and local governments coming up before the end of the year, but the parliamentary committee has yet to submit its report and there is no indication when it will be ready.
The slow progress has upset many who want to vote for representatives able to protect the rights and welfare of migrants.
“People like me have a dream of being able to vote while working overseas, at least before we die,” Ramani Nilanka, who has been a migrant worker in the Middle East for the past 20 years, said. She added that not being able to vote made her feel like a foreigner.
Father Nandana Manatunga, the director of the Human Rights Office Kandy, said most migrant workers are abroad because of the country’s political instability or to escape economic hardship.
“The special parliamentary committee should come up with proposals and allow migrant workers to make their suggestion,” he said, stressing, “The government should give priority to the issue.” 
The former director of Caritas Kandy, who has monitored elections in Sri Lanka, the Union of Myanmar and Thailand, said, “If migrant workers could vote it can change the whole final election results since their number is very high.”
Sujith Perera, the convener of Rata Giya Aththo, a Sri Lankan migrant workers’ rights organisation, said migrant workers are also unhappy that the government has ignored past recommendations by political leaders and the Human Rights Commission Action Plan 2011 to 2016 that recommended the government grant migrant workers voting rights.
“None of the ruling governments—including the present one—have so far taken any interest in giving migrant workers their fundamental rights,” Perera, a past migrant worker himself, noted.
Samantha Jayasinghe, the assistant election commissioner, said that the Election Commission cannot do anything until members of the parliament create a legal framework.
“We are waiting for the report of the parliamentary committee to amend the existing election laws,” Jayasinghe said.
However, another member of the Election Commission, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that the government is in a dilemma about providing voting rights to Sri Lankans overseas as they fear it could lead to election malpractices.
“The system of electronic voting can be misused especially by the Tamil diaspora since their number is very high in Europe,” the person said. “A large Tamil diaspora may even influence the final results of any election in future.”
Around half a million Tamils left the island nation during its three-decade-long civil war that ended in 2009.
According to the Foreign Employment Bureau in Colombo, most Sri Lankan migrant workers are women employed as domestic workers or caregivers in the Middle East. 
The country’s central bank estimates the remittances sent home by Sri Lankans working abroad in 2016 amounted to about US$7.2 billion ($56.2 billion).


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