The Debate | Opinion

Sri Lanka’s Worrying Exodus

The country has always has a sizable diaspora of migrant workers. But now many people are leaving not just to better themselves but out of sheer necessity.

Sri Lanka’s Worrying Exodus
Credit: Depositphotos

The country I grew up in, Sri Lanka, is undergoing profound change.

In the space of a few years, Sri Lanka has gone from one of the region’s most successful developing nations to the most expensive – and one where more than 1 million people have left the country so far this year, according to the Sri Lanka Department of Immigration and Emigration.

Sri Lanka has long been a place that breeds successful migrants, a country where people value education and gladly seek new opportunities to learn, to thrive, to send money home to their families. They are all part of the 3 million-strong diaspora residing in all corners of the globe.

Like many cultures, the family is at the center of Sri Lankan life. There is nothing a Sri Lankan parent wants more than to see their children get educated and prosper.

That’s why, over the years, so many thousands of parents have willingly accepted menial jobs and backbreaking work far from home, as maids, construction workers, cleaners, carers, and drivers, so they can send back money to feed, clothe, and educate their loved ones.

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But now, many people are leaving not just to better themselves but out of sheer necessity. The state of the economy is so bad that every day from very early morning you can already see long queues forming outside the Department of Immigration in Colombo.

By June, the Bureau of Foreign Employment said more than 200,000 people had left for jobs abroad – compared with 120,000 for the whole of last year – many of them following the well-worn path to the Middle East. Host countries are poised to take advantage of Sri Lanka’s economic crisis by lifting their migrant intakes. Saudi Arabia recently announced it would lift its intake of skilled Sri Lankan workers to 400,000 from the current 180,000. Now Malaysia has said it is ready to welcome Sri Lankan workers. Even universities in Japan and South Korea have got in on the act by offering incentives to bright young Sri Lankan students.

The talk of a brain drain is now a reality. The Association of Government Medical Officers sounded the alarm by announcing that 500 doctors had left the country in 2022, some without due notice, leaving huge gaps in the health and hospital system.

The Sri Lankan government, hell bent on increasing remittances as a source of foreign currency, is fueling this growing exodus. It has lowered the minimum age at which at women can migrate for work from 25 to 21. It has relaxed the age guidelines so that children as young as 2 years old can be left behind to be looked after by relatives or carers.

But who can blame people for seeking work abroad? Lack of job opportunity, rampant inflation, the soaring cost of food, a serious medicine shortage in hospitals, and dire warnings of malnutrition are putting physical and mental health at risk. People who could manage on 2,000 Sri Lankan rupees a day at the beginning of the year can now barely survive. Cheap sources of protein like fish and eggs have dried up. Fishermen aren’t going to sea for lack of fuel, so fish is off the menu or overpriced. There is no fresh chicken – too expensive. Eggs – overpriced. Rice, sugar, and milk powder – triple the price. Cooking fuel – unaffordable. The list goes on.

And what of people who have exhausted all their options and decide on another way out? The local Sunday Observer recently reported that since the beginning of the year about 1,350 people have been intercepted attempting to leave Sri Lanka or enter Australian waters. Another 1,240 were detained for questioning. Of these, 130 were children. Who in their right mind takes a child on a risky boat ride? Only someone who’s run out of options.

“We were so desperate that we decided to go to Australia in a fishing trawler risking our lives because we can’t think how we could afford to buy food for our three children in this country,” one would-be migrant, who was detained while seeking to flee to Australia, told media.

Sadly, the economic disaster has made it a whole lot easier for people smugglers to take advantage of this hopelessness and dupe their victims into parting with money they can ill afford. We need to more forcefully raise the alarm about these unscrupulous characters to make it clear to anyone who’s tempted that no good at all can come of a hazardous boat journey. Above all, migration has to be done through the proper channels, even if it takes time, because it lessens the stress on families and means they are protected if something goes wrong.

Finally, a word about the impact of working migrants on families and society as a whole.

In its capacity as a humanitarian organization, Sri Lanka Red Cross works closely with the Bureau of Foreign Migration to ensure that people are well prepared for the challenges they face working in a foreign country. But as economic circumstances compel more Sri Lankans than ever to head overseas, what of the social impact on their families, communities, and country? This is something that we need to pay more heed to if we are to properly value the enormous contribution of migrant workers and support them as they deserve.