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Crisis-hit Sri Lanka on Tuesday reduced to 21 the minimum age at which women can go abroad for work and earn much-needed dollars for the bankrupt economy.

Colombo imposed age restrictions on women working overseas in 2013 after a 17-year-old Sri Lankan nanny was beheaded in Saudi Arabia over the death of a child in her care.

Following outrage over the execution, only women older than 23 were allowed to go abroad, while for Saudi Arabia the minimum age was set at 25.

But with Sri Lanka in its worst economic crisis since independence, the government on Tuesday eased the rules, including for Saudi Arabia.

‘The cabinet of ministers approved the decision to lower the minimum age to 21 years for all countries given the need to increase foreign employment opportunities,’ spokesman Bandula Gunawardana told reporters.

Remittances from Sri Lankans working abroad have long been a key source of foreign exchange for the country, bringing in around $7 billion per year.

This number dived during the coronavirus pandemic to $5.4 billion in 2021 and was forecast to drop under $3.5 billion this year because of the economic crisis.

More than 1.6 million people from the nation of 22 million work abroad, mainly in the Middle East.

The South Asian country’s foreign currency reserves are so low that the government has restricted imports even of essentials including food, fuel and medicine.

Meanwhile, Sri Lanka and Australia on Tuesday unveiled a facility to track possible migrant boats after a surge in people-smuggling attempts from the bankrupt island nation in the past month.

The Fisheries Monitoring Centre in Colombo was opened by visiting home minister Clare O’Neil and Sri Lankan fisheries minister Douglas Devananda, the Australian High Commission said in a statement.

‘Australia is committed to supporting Sri Lanka’s efforts to strengthen its border management capacity,’ the statement said.

‘Australia and Sri Lanka’s close working relationship means that anyone who attempts to get into a boat and try to sail to Australia, will be detected and stopped by border authorities,’ O’Neil was quoted as saying.

The move comes days after Sri Lanka’s navy stopped a fishing trawler attempting to transport dozens of migrants to Australia, the fifth such attempt to be blocked in the last month.

The boat was detected near Trincomalee on Sri Lanka’s east coast with 50 men, 11 women and three children aboard as passengers, according to the navy.

Four other boats aiming to ferry passengers to Australia have attempted to embark from Sri Lanka in the past month, with around 300 people arrested for immigration offences.


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