Laudable role by young diplomats | Daily News
Holding fortresses abroad

Laudable role by young diplomats

Sri Lankans stranded abroad return to Motherland
Sri Lankans stranded abroad return to Motherland

While much has been stated about the compassionate and committed role played by the doctors and health services staff and the valiant members of the Armed Forces in the campaign to combat COVID-19 pandemic, there are many others who make a tremendous contribution under trying circumstances. These unsung heroes include senior public servants - some of whom work round the clock - media personnel who carry the message to the locked-down masses and many others from road cleaners to garbage carriers.

Foreign Secretary Ravinatha Aryasinha, earlier this week mentioned another group of young officers who play a great services behind the scene. They are the young diplomats, who silently stepped into large shoes of ambassadors and high commissioners to fulfill the task of attending to the needs of Sri Lankan students abroad, expatriate community, stranded Sri Lankans abroad and foreigners in Sri Lanka by attending to the requests of repatriation, dealing with airlines and air port authorities as well as the governments of host countries.

Foreign Relations Minister Dinesh Gunawardena said that one of the priorities was to bring back the migrant workers. Presenting a Cabinet paper, he said that there were many Sri Lankans abroad who have lost their jobs. “They are pretty much destitute. Thereafter we can consider those who want to come, but who have jobs and who simply want to come on holiday to avoid any COVID-19 vulnerability.”

Foreign Secretary Aryasinha said that the Ministry and the Sri Lankan missions abroad “are working very hard to get them back the stranded people and the students”. However he pointed out that in one or two months from now, they would once again be asked to try to reconcile their status as students when there are difficulties in them getting back or losing out on semesters. It is the same with those who lose their employment.

“Our plea to these employees, as we did to students some time ago, is to ask them to carefully calibrate the possible loss of jobs or loss of educational opportunity or major delays which can occur from their coming,” he said.

The Ministry has called on migrant workers, as well as students and parents, to carefully consider the effect repatriation could have on their jobs and education before making the decision to return. Aryasinha said that over 38,000 Sri Lankans are seeking to be repatriated and of that, nearly 28,000 are migrant workers.

The Ministry and the missions aboard are overburdened with the large number of requests made by the expatriate Sri Lankans. Furthermore, a substantial number of Sri Lankan missions now function headless as new ambassadors and high commissioners had not been appointed. In these circumstances, the missions are handled by junior diplomats and Aryasinha praised the work of young diplomatic officers in Lankan Missions overseas who are helping stranded nationals.

At present, out of the 67 Missions of Sri Lanka, one-third of Missions function with officers in acting capacity from the Sri Lanka Foreign Service (SLFS). At the same time most of the departments in the Ministry are headed by relatively junior officers acting as directors general.

The Foreign Secretary, however, sees a silver lining in the dark clouds. “This experience has given significant exposure to several young SLFS officers who were acting in the post of Head of Mission in facing high pressure situations, taking swift and calculated decisions in analyzing the host country situations to identify vulnerabilities, while dealing with aggrieved communities.”

He is confident that such experiences would enrich their future careers and hold them in good stead in their professional progression.

The complexity of the multiple tasks means that Ministry and Mission staff members have to simultaneously address them across the globe in an unprecedented manner. These included meeting the concerns of diplomats and tourists in Sri Lanka, securing Missions abroad, addressing the demands of those who wanted to return, easing conditions on the ground for those who wanted to remain in their host countries in collaboration with host governments and communities, securing essential supplies both medical and food, ensuring Sri Lankan exports reached their destinations, and markets were found for new products such as personal protection equipment (PPEs), garnering donations for the COVID-19 fund to the tune of Rs. 27 million, and engaging with the WHO and other multilateral, regional and bilateral partners in leveraging Sri Lanka’s interests.

Over 38,983 overseas Sri Lankans (OSLs) in 143 countries at present are seeking to return home, based on information gathered mainly through the ‘Contact Sri Lanka’ Web Portal of the Ministry of Foreign Relations. This comprises 3,078 students, 4,040 short-term visa holders, 27,854 migrant workers, 3,527 dependents, 484 duel citizens, and others.

More than 3,500 overseas Sri Lankans have already been repatriated from 15 countries, largely comprising foreign students and government officials in training, as well as their dependents.

The portal has not only been able to direct Sri Lankans to the nearest Sri Lanka Diplomatic Mission, specially where there is no Sri Lankan representation in the countries concerned, but has also helped connect vulnerable categories of Sri Lankans who are in need of food and also face medical emergencies with provisions of dry rations, medicines and in some occasions, facilitating arrangements for shelter.

While attending to COVID19 related issues, the missions could not afford to neglect other issues with regard to Sri Lanka’s interests abroad and protect the country’s image. The High Commission of Sri Lanka in the United Kingdom had to take swift steps to corrective action regarding disinformation attempts by anti-Sri Lanka campaigners. The mission has written to the Editor of the Guardian newspaper after the web edition of the UK’s Guardian newspaper posted a quiz mentioning ‘Eelam’ as an indigenous name for Sri Lanka, linking it with the Tamil Tigers terrorist group (LTTE). The second question of a quiz titled “Travel quiz: Do you know your islands, Man Friday?” published on the web edition of The Guardian newspaper in the United Kingdom last week read: “Eelam is an indigenous name for which popular holiday island?” Among the answers to this question, Sri Lanka had been listed as one of the choices, and when one selected Sri Lanka as the answer, whilst indicating it as the correct answer, a further description reading “The full name of the island’s recent military insurgency was LTTE – Liberation Tigers for Tamil Eelam” appeared. The High Commissioner of Sri Lanka in the United Kingdom wrote to the Editor of the Guardian Katharine Viner on the inaccuracy of this information, requesting that the content be removed. Since then, the Guardian has removed the quiz from its website.

London is one of the few missions where the new High Commissioner could take up duties before the lockdown. Until then it was capably handled by a relatively young diplomatic officer known for his effective but quiet diplomacy.

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