The Government has suspended the granting of citizenship to foreign spouses of Sri Lankans along with the dual nationality facility on which no finality has yet been reached.  A senior Immigration official said this week that both issues were recently discussed at a meeting with President Mahinda Rajapaksa. However, a decision had been deferred. The [...]


Foreign spouses, mixed marriage children face uncertain future

Dual citizenship facility still in suspense

The Government has suspended the granting of citizenship to foreign spouses of Sri Lankans along with the dual nationality facility on which no finality has yet been reached.  A senior Immigration official said this week that both issues were recently discussed at a meeting with President Mahinda Rajapaksa. However, a decision had been deferred.

The website of the Department of Immigration and Emigration still states that foreign spouses or widows (not widowers) of Sri Lankan citizens resident in the country for a minimum of seven years are qualified to apply for citizenship. But the official said there was no practical implementation of that provision.
Meanwhile, the Government continues to bar the transfer of private or State land to foreigners without amending the legislation to make such prohibition legal. This uncodified ban came into effect through the 2013 budget.

There is now a legal vacuum regarding property and inheritance rights – not only of foreign spouses, but of those children of mixed marriages who do not have Sri Lankan citizenship and who cannot hold dual nationality due to the facility being suspended. Following two reports written by the Sunday Times on citizenship and property rights, several foreign spouses made representations saying they live in “a state of limbo”. New spouses were particularly ill-informed while even long-time residents of Sri Lanka were not aware of specifics such as entitlement to work and current inheritance rights. None of those interviewed consented to being identified by name.

“There is no policy in Sri Lanka of granting foreign spouses resident visas,” said Harsha Ilukpitiya, Deputy Controller (Citizenship). “They only get the spouse visa and they know this at the outset. Also, the law says foreign spouses can get citizenship after seven years of living here but implementation has been temporarily suspended.”

At present, the Department issues ‘spouse visas’ to foreigners free of charge. They must be renewed every two years on the production of a letter from the Sri Lankan partner saying he or she has no objection to the spouse staying on in the country. Some men or women, who have been married to Sri Lankans for decades, have fat files of documents and still trudge to the Department every two years for permission to live here.

“My mother has been in Sri Lanka for 30 years,” said a mixed marriage child who is now living abroad. “She has a file the size of goodness-knows-what! I think at one time she put them into a new file because hers was falling to pieces.” The older foreign wives are worried about what would happen should their spouses pass away before they do. “Since the day of my marriage, I have to go to the Immigration Department to renew my residence visa every two years,” said a European woman married to her Sri Lankan husband for more than 20 years. “Each time, my husband has to write a letter to the Controller Immigration asking him to grant me a residence visa for another two years. What is going to happen to me in case I survive my husband and there are no children or relatives to write this letter? Am I going to be deported from the only home I have?”

According to Mr. Ilukpitiya, a foreign widow or widower could seek visa renewal with the spouse’s death certificate. Many of those interviewed said they did not know of this provision and that “it wasn’t written down anywhere”.

Meanwhile, recent newspaper articles stating that those wishing to renew residence visas would have to undergo medical checks have also bred concerns. “It is not clear yet whether this applies also to a foreign spouse who lives with the husband or wife in Sri Lanka,” said the European wife earlier quoted.

There is ambiguity, too, about the rights of foreign spouses to work. The Department of Immigration and Emigration says they are not permitted to do so. “They cannot work on the spouse visa but there is no impediment to a foreign spouse obtaining a separate work visa while he or she is here,” said Mr. Ilukpitiya. “It is only the spouse visa that does not entitle them to work. At the same time, if the family runs a business, the foreigner is able to handle affairs related to that business even on his or her spouse visa.”

Restrictions are not strictly enforced where freelance work is concerned. It is when a spouse contemplates permanent employment that more conditions under a separate visa regime apply. One male foreign spouse said that, during the first six years of his marriage to his Sri Lankan wife, he obtained a visa through his place of work.

Thereafter, he opted for the spouse visa and has been doing freelance consultancy work ever since. He had no real objection to getting his visa renewed every two years. “I think it’s an unfortunate administrative model that is unhelpful whenever you have to do it,” he reflected. “But it isn’t actually difficult to do it. I’ve never had any problem getting my visa renewed.”

“Where work is concerned, it doesn’t say you can work and it doesn’t say you can’t work,” was his interpretation. “Citizenship, on the other hand, is a horrible grey area. Even Immigration has a problem. They cannot tell you one way or the other what the position is.”

When it comes to property and inheritance rights, things become more complicated. “As far as transfers and gifting of properties are concerned, even lawyers don’t know the present status quo,” said one foreign spouse. “But on the other hand my husband can buy properties with both our monies, but I will be deprived of owing those properties in future. As things stand, foreign spouses are having nightmares at the thought of losing their husbands and of being forced to vacate their only home.”

“What is going to happen to me if I would be a widow who can’t inherit my husband’s properties, on which we are living?” she asked. “As a widow, will I be penniless and chased away from our residence my only home. Will I be deported?” It also doesn’t help that foreigners are barred from taking their money – including that which they have invested here – out of Sri Lanka.

Meanwhile, the children of mixed marriages are entitled to Sri Lankan citizenship until the age of 21. After that, they must choose whether they wished to retain it or to give it up in favour of citizenship from the country of their foreign parent. Because dual citizenship is suspended here, they would be treated as foreigners if they renounce their Sri Lankan citizenship. The same uncertainty regarding inheritance, transfer and gifting of property and land rights would then prevail until the Government decides what it wants to do.

Mr Ilukpitiya admitted that some laws needed to be changed to reflect recent developments and policy changes. He could not say when this would be done.

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