July 18, 2024

Sri Lankans jump ship as a bankrupt nation struggles

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The snaking queues for food and fuel that crisscrossed Sri Lanka last year have given way to a different kind of line — people scrambling for travel documents to flee their bankrupt island.

“What we see as normalcy is a mirage,” customer care executive Gayan Jayewardena, 43, told AFP while queueing at a government office for a passport for his baby daughter.

“The situation is not getting better,” said Jayewardena, whose wife and two older daughters already have their papers.

“When we consider it from the point of our children, it is better to leave. We want to migrate to a country like New Zealand.”

The South Asian nation’s 22 million people suffered desperate shortages of essentials in 2022 after the government ran out of dollars to finance imports, including life-saving medicines.

Months of protests led to the storming of then-president Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s palace on July 9 last year.

His successor Ranil Wickremesinghe doubled taxes and cut subsidies, two highly unpopular moves.

The new government may have restored supplies, but at sometimes three times the previous price.

Wickremesinghe secured a $2.9 billion bailout from the International Monetary Fund in March and expects a recovery next year, but many in the country are not so optimistic.

  • ‘Trying to leave’ –

Software engineer Maduranga, 38, who uses one name, said the high living costs and taxes prompted him to consider migrating to Australia.

“The cost is going high, every day it is going higher, but the salary amount is the same”, Maduranga said. “Companies are not increasing the salaries, so that’s why we are trying to leave.”

At the foreign employment bureau, where Sri Lankans must register before taking up jobs abroad, numbers surged from 122,000 in 2021 to a record 311,000 last year.

For the first five months of this year, the bureau recorded around 122,000 people leaving — the same as in all of 2021 — but officials believe many others also left on tourist visas to seek work in the Middle East and elsewhere in Asia.

Last year, the number of people applying for passports more than doubled — from over 382,500 in 2021, when the economy grew by 3.3 percent, to a record 911,689 passports in 2022, when the economy contracted 7.8 percent.

The trend has continued.

This year through May, 433,000 overseas travel documents have been issued, according to the Immigration and Emigration Department.

An online system was launched in June to cope with the swelling demand, but those urgently seeking passports must apply in person.

“My number was 976 and I think after me there would have been about 500 people,” said Damitha Hitihamu, 51, after handing in his papers to renew his passport in a day.

“I never expected to see such a crowd for the one-day service.”

  • Brain drain –

Sri Lanka has been a labour exporter for decades, providing both skilled and unskilled workers, especially to Gulf states.

But the impact of the brain drain is increasingly being felt.

Newspapers are awash with reports of shortages of doctors, nurses, engineers and other skilled workers because so many have left.

Sri Lanka’s construction industry, one of the biggest employers, is reporting losing skilled workers and professionals at an alarming rate.

“There is large-scale migration of construction workers,” said Nissanka Wijeratne, secretary-general of the Chamber of Construction Industry.

Wijeratne said losses were “at all levels” but that it was “worse in the professional categories”.

Around 200,000 jobs were cut in construction during the recession coupled with hyperinflation last year — and many of those still working are looking to leave.

“When I checked with one consultancy company, they used to have 70 professionals in that office,” Wijeratne said. “Now it has reduced to 15.”

Insurance professional Lalantha Perera, 43, said his salary was not enough to support his wife and two children.

“After the protest campaign last year, we got some relief,” he said. “But that is not enough and I am planning to go to a European country.”

The economic think tank Advocata Institute says middle-class workers are seeking employment abroad to escape poverty at home.

“Amongst the poorest people, they have cut down their meals,” said Advocata head Dhananath Fernando.

“The middle classes — those who can afford — are attempting to migrate.”

©️ Agence France-Presse

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