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Sri Lankan Out-Migration: A Boon Or Bane? – Analysis

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Historically, out-migration from Sri Lanka has been a major facet of its national life. Some forms have brought it credit while others have brought it discredit. Both “push” and “pull” factors have worked, giving an idea of the conditions existing in Sri Lanka as well as the world at the time of out-migration.    

Since the 1980s, when the oil-rich Middle East opened up for immigrants, migrant workers’ remittances have been a major factor buoying up Sri Lanka’s economy. But from the 1980s onwards, till well into the 2000s, the negative side of out-migration was noticeable. The ethnic conflict had led to the flight of lakhs of minority Tamils, depriving the country of a well-educated community. The image of Sri Lanka in the world took a nose dive.   

Then came the economic crisis created by the 2020-2021 pandemic and governmental mismanagement of the economy. This triggered the flight of educated middle-class professionals from all ethnic groups. With the result, the prospects of Sri Lanka’s economic recovery have become doubly dim. Sri Lanka is now seeing a brain drain on a significant scale raising concerns about its economic consequences for an already down-and-out nation.

Push and Pull Factors

After Sri Lanka’s independence from British rule in 1948, and especially after the adoption of the ‘Sinhala Only’ official language policy in 1956 and the rapid Sinhalization of the administration thereafter, Eurasians, especially the Dutch Burghers, who had held respectable positions under the British, feared marginalization and left for Australia. And the “White Australia” policy at the other end, helped them get there.   

The economic shortages that marked Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s socialist era (part of the 1960s and 1970s) led to some educated Lankans seeking greener pastures outside. The opening up of the economy in 1977 halted that trend, but not for long. The ethnic conflict and the war that dominated the 1980s and 1990, led to hundreds of thousands of minority Tamils fleeing the country. Sri Lanka’s international image was eroded badly. 

But the opening up of the oil-rich Middle East to immigrants, helped boost Sinhalese and Muslim migration. The economic crisis which appeared as a result of the COVID 19 pandemic and the government’s mismanagement of the economy in 2020-21, triggered the current surge in migration of all sections of Sri Lankans. 

Almost everybody in Sri Lanka now wants to migrate. In an unusual step, the government is encouraging its staff to leave for three years on leave-without-pay basis to cut down on its salary bill. Many qualified government staff are availing of this opportunity. The reopening of world economies, post-pandemic is helping the new wave of migration.

Remittances a Boon

The bright side is that workers’ remittances are still contributing a lot to the economy. According to the Central Bank of Sri Lanka (CBSL) workers’ remittances have covered around 80% of the annual trade deficit over the past two decades. In 2018, remittances amounted to US$ 7 billion, accounting for 8.8% of the GDP. Even in the bad year of 2021, it was US$ 5.49 billion. 

Brain Drain a bane 

But the flight of educated professionals deprives the economy of their invaluable services and denies the country a just return on the huge investment in free education from the school to the university level. The other drawback is that, unlike workers’ migration, the migration of professionals does not result in remittances.        

In her 2022 paper entitled Strengthening Active Labor: Market Policies to Drive an Inclusive Recovery in Asia, Poongothai Venuganan of the Asian Development Bank Institute, says that between January and September 2022, over 222,000 people had left the country for foreign employment, of which approximately 30% were skilled workers. 

“This trend of departures can cause a vicious cycle of worsening instability as continued outward migration will result in the continuous dwindling of skill availability and the economy’s potential, leading to further deterioration of macroeconomic stability, which can trigger another round of accelerated labor exits,” Venuganan warns. 

Going further, she points out that since Sri Lanka’s labor market provides little leeway for attracting foreign talent from elsewhere, this outward labor migration will likely hinder the recovery process in the near term and the subsequent progress of the economy into a middle-income one in the medium run.     

According to the Government Medical Officers’ Association (GMOA), nearly 500 doctors had left till August 2022. But the problem of doctors fleeing Sri Lanka is not new. In their 2013 paper on Migration of Sri Lankan medical specialists Pubudu De Silva et al,, said that from a total of 1,915 specialists who left Sri Lanka for training, 215 (11%) did not return due to push and pull factors. The top reasons for the migration of doctors were: better quality of life abroad; disinclination to work in rural Sri Lanka; better prospects of career development and better social security abroad.

Sri Lanka could lose its IT personnel too. The IT sector employs 120,000 people and had earned US$ 1.6 billion in export revenue in 2019.  

Illegal Migration, a Shame

Sri Lanka is also notorious for illegal migration. Recently, more than 300 Sri Lankans were rescued from the waters of the Truong Sa archipelago. The Sri Lanka’s Navy had caught eight boats with 351 migrants on board off the eastern coast. The navy keeps catching such illegal migrants but to no avail. The urge to flee the country at any cost is very strong now because of the 60 to 100% inflation and lack of jobs.   

Migrants find it worthwhile paying millions of rupees to human smugglers even if their boats are primitive and overloaded. Their promised land appears to be Australia.  A report by the Australian Crime Commission published in 2013 stated that Sri Lanka was among the top four sources of asylum seekers arriving by boat. The boat people head for Australia though they are not welcome there at all. 

As border protection measures are strengthened, smugglers are resorting to risky methods of transporting migrants, thereby endangering their lives, points out Chandana Karunaratne of the Institute of Policy Studies in his 2013 paper. Many deaths occur during these journeys. An estimated 2,000 irregular migrants perished at sea every year, according to Karunaratne’s paper.

Sri Lankan illegal migrants have been heading for Europe too. There were between 1.9 and 3.8 million irregular Sri Lankan migrants in the European Union, constituting 7 to 13% of the overall migrant population, Karunaratne says.  

Canada is another popular destination for irregular Sri Lankan migrants,  “The extensive coastline enables people smugglers to target several points of entry, but a primary hotspot for irregular maritime arrivals is off Vancouver Island on the western coast. In one well-documented incident that occurred in October 2009, Vancouver Island played host to 76 irregular maritime arrivals of Sri Lankan nationals. In another incident, one which helped change Canada’s refugee policy, 492 Sri Lankan nationals arrived off the coast of Victoria, British Columbia in August 2010,” Karunaratne recalled.

Official sources in Canada indicated that there were 635 recorded cases of Sri Lankan nationals seeking asylum in 2011.The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime estimated that ‘Sri Lankan’ was the predominant nationality of maritime arrivals on the western coast of Canada. They had crossed the North Pacific Ocean from South East Asia.  

P. K. Balachandran

P. K. Balachandran is a senior Indian journalist working in Sri Lanka for local and international media and has been writing on South Asian issues for the past 21 years.

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