■ Political and economic instability, rising cost of living, the main factors ■ Higher enthusiasm among the 28–35 age categories and family units as opposed to individuals For several weeks, a popular photo print shop in Union Place was teeming with people who stood in long lines to get their passport and visa requirements sorted. This [...]


In the absence of hope; many Lankans are looking to migrate


■ Political and economic instability, rising cost of living, the main factors

■ Higher enthusiasm among the 28–35 age categories and family units as opposed to individuals

For several weeks, a popular photo print shop in Union Place was teeming with people who stood in long lines to get their passport and visa requirements sorted. This rush was to meet the application deadline for the US Green Card Lottery. In general, however, visa inquiries have “doubled after lockdown was lifted”, said Sanjeewa Nanayakkara, the shop’s manager.

In recent months, there is growing discussion about more Sri Lankans than before wanting to leave the country. Inquiries by the Sunday Times showed that part of this was owing to challenges arising from COVID-19, including job security and lapses in education. But the problem appears broader than that–there is a significant portion of people that want to leave who hadn’t considered migration before.

People flocking to the photoprint shop at Union Place. Pix by Eshan Fernando

“The quality of life is non-existent at this point,” said a 22-year Brand Management Executive. “Private sector jobs are a joke. There are no salary revisions despite the plunging value of the currency and rising inflation. I want a better life than this.”

A popular mothers’ forum on Facebook has had multiple posts on migration. The majority of followers were concerned about the future of their children in the context of the country’s short, medium and long-term prospects. There were references to “economic and political crisis”. Another said that their children had no future or “slightest chance of progress in this downward spiral of a country”.

At the same time, there were others who felt that, wherever they went in the world, Sri Lanka was “home”–where they had friends, family and connections.

“I grew up hearing that this country is bad and politicians are corrupt for 20 years of my life and never heard about an honest politician,” says Pahani Fernando, a 20-year-old student of international relations.

“Politicians represent the country and the political system here is disappointing,” she said. “As a woman, I would feel safer abroad because there is more freedom and I do not have to fear about the risks I could face when I go out. While I want to study abroad, I do want to come back and help develop the country.”

Past surges of migration correlated with significant incidents like the Sinhala Only Act of 1956, Black July, the tsunami and the civil war, said Niresh Eliatamby. He lectures in journalism, marketing and law and has observed that in all three subjects, students are focused on getting the qualification and leaving the country.

Today, the situation is vastly different with migration being due to a “general collapse of the system”, Mr Eliatamby said. The absence of hope remains the main reason Sri Lankans look to migrate, while a combination of other factors like political and economic instability, the rising cost of living, corruption and the lack of freedom and safety for women also contribute.

Green card lottery: More Lankans trying their luck in recent months.

A migration consultancy firm said the number of inquiries it received after import restrictions were imposed was “overwhelming, with over 700 within the span of two days”. Pathway International, another visa and migration company also reported seeing an increase in interest during September when compared with the past. This multiplied after the lockdown was lifted on October 1.

There is higher enthusiasm among the 28–35 age categories. There has been a rise in family units migrating as opposed to just individuals, the companies also said. Canada, Australia, UK and New Zealand were the top preferences owing to a better quality of living.

Meanwhile, private higher education institutes offering degrees abroad, too, have seen a jump in applications. “The applications we have been receiving have increased as there is a higher trend in children wanting to go abroad to study,” said Victor S Patrick, Director of Enrolment Management of the American College of Higher Education. Most who do leave tended to stay because of more opportunities abroad.

“The main reason I want to migrate is because I see no future here because of the increasing cost of living and political instability,” said a 23-year-old Muslim who does marketing. “As a minority I am tired of living in a country that constantly reminds me of how much it doesn’t respect my basic human rights or that it could turn on us any moment as a part of some political scheme yet again.” Like most others we interviewed, he did not wish to be named.

“The cost of living is absolutely atrocious,” said another man who does digital marketing and administration. “I’m 23 and I have been working for six years now. Yet I struggle to meet most of my day to day needs and live pay check to pay check.”

The education sector plays a crucial role in this area, said Mr Eliatamby, adding that the local system failed to gear students for the modern job market. The education system did not consider the country’s requirements when determining student intakes to state universities.

Migration has both positive and negative impacts on development, said Dhananath Fernando, Chief Operations Officer of Advocata, an independent policy think-tank. Increasing migration leads to higher remittances while unemployment is addressed through migration as it creates jobs. Those who migrate have improved skills which they then share and use to start up their own businesses which is advantageous to the local economy. Different values from different cultures help them broaden their horizons and incorporate these into their work.

But while we have a large diaspora, there is no mechanism or incentives for them to return to Sri Lanka, Mr Fernando said. Foreign spouses are not allowed work visas while opportunities for business are complex and inconvenient. This and other factors drive the brightest away.

Sri Lanka’s ability to create wealth is stunted because of skilled people leaving the country, which makes way for the less skilled to occupy key positions. Many migrate due to lack of higher education opportunities. Language skills also remain a barrier in the workforce.

“People learn Korean and go to South Korea, so it’s not like they can’t learn English,” Mr Fernando said. “All it takes is a coordinated and combined effort.” The 2018 Youth Labour Market Assessment found that lack of English language skills were the most in demand by Sri Lankan employers.

The rising cost of living–even of basic food items, let alone clothing and services–is one of the main drives behind the prevailing hunt for greener pastures abroad. “Problems in our country can be easily solved because we have so many resources and a good health-care system,” reflected Mr Eliatamby. “All we need are a few proper decisions by policymakers to make things better.”

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