By P.K.Balachandran/Daily Express
Colombo, March 25: Italy has been identified as the predominant source of COVID-19 infection in Sri Lanka. No wonder then that the Lankan government has imposed an indefinite curfew in the districts of Colombo, Gampaha and Kalutara where most returnees from Italy reside.
Italy is one of three countries most affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. On March 24, Italy reported 602 new deaths from the coronavirus, bringing the total number of deaths to 6,077 with the tally of cases rising to 63,928.
Italy has been home to a large number of immigrants from Sri Lanka, both legal and illegal, since the 1980s. Many of the returnees in recent weeks could be illegal migrants on whom the State does not have adequate records. Identifying them, tracing them and examining them for the symptoms of the virus and treating or quarantining them pose a major challenge to the authorities.
On Wednesday the police sought public support to identify at least 12 persons who had failed to undergo quarantine on their arrival from Italy recently. There are reasons to suspect that the arrivals who have played truant are illegal migrants who had come back.
Illegal migration of Lankans to Italy has been a long standing phenomenon and a cause of concern too. V.P.N.Senadhi of the Department of Demography, University of Colombo, who had studied illegal and legal migration to Italy found that 46% had gone illegally by boat. This was so because they came from the West Lankan coast which had many multi-day trawlers with an ability to traverse the Indian Ocean, Red Sea, Suez Canal and the Mediterranean to reach Italy. This was the cheapest transportation to Italy.
Italy had a liberal migration policy in the 1990s which helped both legal and illegal immigrants. The Dini Decree in 1996 made it easier for Lankan workers to bring their families to Italy. In Rome, Naples and Milan, Lankans had built up “enlarged families”, where jobs were exchanged among relatives and compatriots, Senadhi says.
However, as illegal migration increased continuously, the Italian government gave the responsibility of controlling illegal migrants to NGOs, vocation campaigns and the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church treated them well by supplying food, medicine, clothes and every day necessities. The Church also taught them Italian to make it easier for them to find work. Although, eventually, Italy controlled illegal immigration, it could not stop it.
According to Jagath Pathirage of Charles Darwin University, in 2011, 88,000 Sri Lankan nationals were legally residing in Italy. They went from Lanka for the very good wages in Italy. “Even cleaners earned in excess of Euro 1000 a month, enabling savings of at least E300 every month. Some of the informants with several years of experience in Italy were putting aside more than E5000 a year,” he notes.
“As a result, in 2012, Sri Lankans were one of the largest immigrant nationalities in Italy and Milan, with about 80,000 Sri Lankans living in the country. About 16,000 Sri Lankans were residing in Milan alone. Lankans earning well in Italy helped their kinsmen back home to migrate likewise. Some of the migrants returned to Sri Lanka and invested in the fishery and tourism industries,” Pathirage points out.
Writing in “Groundviews” in 2012, Bernardo Brown said that the fishermen of Negombo, Chilaw and Wennapuwa had been seasonal migrants for centuries because of the weather conditions. They would go to Kokilai in Mullaitivu and also Mannar. “But with the start of the war in 1983, the presence of these migrants – although seasonal – was no longer welcomed by the Tamil separatists in Mannar and Mullaitivu,” Brown said. “In 1984, Sinhalese Catholic fishermen were massascred in Kokilai. As the violence escalated in the late 1980s, fishermen could no longer migrate to these localities,” he pointed out.
The economically affected fishermen then began to look at other avenues to earn a livelihood. The first batch of Lankan fishermen travelled to Italy in the 1980s and managed to secure profitable jobs. Others followed suit.
At about this time, the Lankan government was encouraging fishermen to acquire motorized fishing trawlers, thanks to the then Fisheries Minister, Festus Perera. These motorized boats became multi-day boats and eventually helped in human smuggling from 1994 onwards.
In 1994, the charge for an illegal journey was less than US$ 2,000 per person. But it grew exponentially over the next few years, eventually to touch the US$ 4,000 mark, Brown said. Lacking the money to pay, many young Lankans would offer their family’s property as collateral.
Initially, only young Catholic fishermen from the west coast went to Italy but soon others from other communities and regions joined the bandwagon. Human smuggling also became an international business. Nationals from Bangladesh, India and Pakistan entered Sri Lanka through the main airport and were whisked away to Negombo and put on a boat to Italy and other countries in the West.
However, a change came about in 2002 which helped control or minimize illegal immigration, Brown said. The Italian Parliament passed the Bossi-Fini law, which offered a path to regularization to those already living in Italy even as it devised stricter border controls.
“The second important change was a consequence of the ASEM — Ministerial Conference on Cooperation for the Management of Migratory Flows between Europe and Asia. Following this conference, the Italian government established bilateral agreements with sending countries to help curb illegal migratory flows. One of the advantages to the countries that signed was that Italy offered them special quotas for immigrants and readmission priorities in exchange for their cooperation,” Brown added.
As a consequence of these measures, illegal migration to Italy was drastically controlled, but not eliminated.