L: Jaffna vendors at water’s edge; R: Suresh

Wth contribution by David K and Eliza Thomas, based on an interview and follow-up from January 2021 onwards

Selvalingam Suresh came to TWC2’s Cuff Road Project to sign up for free meals on 10 September 2019 — that’s ages ago, since it is now April 2021. He’s has been taking meals through the programme ever since.

Was he badly injured and needed time to recover? No. Was he fighting to get his owed salary and facing an intransigent employer? No.

He’s an overstayer. But, as the details below will show, he overstayed for only seventeen days, and then languished penniless and unemployed for twenty more months, caught in our bureaucracy. And even when he was finally allowed to go home, the Sri Lankan mission could offer no help.

This is a story of neglect and oversight. How much that is because he’s a “nobody” would be a good question. Why rouse ourselves to hurry a case along and extend help to someone who is a nobody?

How it began

In July 2019, the young Sri Lankan family man from the northern capital of Jaffna sold his pregnant wife’s gold to pay an “agent” 250,000 Sri Lankan rupees (about $2,000) for some directions to get to Singapore. It is not clear why those directions were worth $2,000 since Singapore permits visa-free entry for Sri Lankans, but when one does not have much education in poor countries, one might have no easy way to find information for oneself and thus have to rely on others who claim more knowledge.

In this case however, the “agent” gave him completely false information. He told Suresh that he should be able to land a job after arrival using a social visit pass (a 30-day tourist pass).

Suresh knew nothing about the In-principle Approval (IPA) process which is the proper pathway for migrant workers into Singapore. This process requires foreigners to obtain employment before embarking on their journey. It is not possible to first arrive here and then try to convert a tourist pass into a work pass.

Suresh’s “agent” did not even bother to contact him after arrival to check if he was properly fixed up in a job.

One might be tempted to place some blame on Suresh for his naivete, but it’s always easy to blame the underprivileged for that. Without fluency in English, easy access to the internet, or exposure to other countries, ignorance and naivete would be the normal condition. In any case, rampant unemployment and poor job options make work abroad very appealing and, some might argue, necessary for many South Asians to put food on the table.

To get to where they imagine a better life awaited, they’d depend on intermediaries for information. Were intermediaries to feed them wrong information, they might be none the wiser.

Look beyond Suresh’s poverty or lack of education. Look at the character of the man. Look instead at his willingness to take risks and to do the kinds of dirty, undiginified work we would not do, to feed his family.

Suresh ended up as a dishwasher in a restaurant in Little India.

But 17 days after his 30-day tourist pass expired, he was caught overstaying, so the income he earned from the illicit job was nowhere sufficient for him to recoup his $2,000 fee to the “agent”.

On the fateful night in August 2019, about ten immigration officers raided the boarding house where he was staying. Suresh had been paying $300 a month for a bedspace. There were 20 to 30 others staying in the house, but only Suresh was arrested. The others had their papers in order.

Following his six-day imprisonment for overstaying, he was released from Changi Prison, following which he was required to stay on by the Immigration and Customs Authority (ICA). On release, his immigration status was regularised with a Special Pass that allowed him to stay on temporarily in Singapore, but Special Passes come with the condition that the holders must not seek employment.

Suresh was under the impression that the investigation into his overstay was continuing and this was the reason he was required to stay on here. His fate, in his view, was out of his hands.

And thus he languished for 18 months, undemployed, destitute and dependent on TWC2 for his daily meals and housing support.

Suresh’s baby boy was born after he left Sri Lanka. Till now, he has not seen his son or cradled him in his arms. The weight of his debts and homesickness seem to have broken his spirit.

Hard to get clarity

By November 2020, more than year after his release from prison, his TWC2 caseworker and our volunteers got really concerned about him and tried to reach the ICA for clarity about his case. Thus began months of fitful communication between TWC2 and the ICA. At times, the ICA officer we reached told us that he would contact Suresh directly to update him on the situation, but Suresh would later report that he received no call. He got increasingly frustrated.

Then we were told that it was out of ICA’s hands because answers had to be sought from the Attorney-General’s Chambers regarding the “status of the investigation”.

It was only around March 2021 that a fuller picture emerged. We managed to confirm (as we had long suspected) that Suresh was mistaken to believe that he was under investigation. He had paid his penalty for the offence; his case had long since been closed. Instead, the intention was for him to serve as a witness for the prosecution against his landlord for “harbouring” an overstayer, but this case seemed not to have come to trial.

In any case, around October 2020, Suresh’s case was transferred from one officer at ICA to another, possibly adding to the delay.

We were also told by the second ICA officer that the earlier officer had given Suresh a choice soon after release from prison: to either stay on as a witness to help the authorities or go home. According to the ICA, Suresh agreed to stay on — though Suresh denied ever being given this choice. We too find it rather hard to believe that, even if given a choice, Suresh would have chosen to stay, for what value would staying on have for Suresh when he was not allowed to work?

Finally free to go

Finally, on 31 March 2021, the ICA told Suresh that the investigation has been concluded, and that the file would be sent to the repatriation branch. This does not mean that the Singapore government was going to buy him an air ticket, though the government would provide a free Covid-19 PCR test.  Suresh was told to prepare $550 to $570 for the ticket.

Naturally, he didn’t have that kind of money.

We emailed the High Commission of Sri Lanka the same day (31 March 2021) but received no reply. So, five days later, we called the High Commission and spoke to a lady there who told us that the mission cannot pay for his air ticket as they do not have such “facility” to do so.

TWC2 then paid for his airticket with money raised from donations. On 16 April 2021, Suresh finally flew home.

What is the responsibility of diplomatic missions to their citizens stranded abroad? This is an issue that comes up repeatedly in the migration discourse. In many countries, there is criticism about the neglect that diplomatic missions show towards their citizens of “lower” social classes, offering next to no help, and sometimes in stark contrast to the scraping and bowing before high-status individuals.