Economic Exodus

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No one needs reminding of the daily consequences of Sri Lanka’s economic collapse:  skyrocketing prices, crippling shortages of fuel and hunger stalk the land. But despite the immediate suffering endured by millions, it is the long term consequences that could prove to be most damaging for the tear drop island.

In the first five months of 2022, Sri Lanka issued 288,645 passports compared with 91,331 in the same period last year. The urgency for many people aiming to leave was compounded recently by a warning from Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe that a food crisis is only months away. While migration, especially among highly skilled workers like software engineers, doctors and nurses is not uncommon, the economic conditions of the past year have increased the pace at which Sri Lankans seek greener pastures abroad.

A November 2021 survey report by the Colombo-based Institute for Health Policy, an independent research centre, found the number of Sri Lankans wanting to migrate had doubled from three to five years ago and nearly 50 per cent of the young and educated wanted to migrate now. Long queues at the passport office are just one indication of this.

A 35-year old software engineer who preferred not to be named moved to Australia with his family in March this year. “I didn’t really have any plans to migrate. I ran a small IT company, and I was happy with it,” he told Al Jazeera. But a rise in ethnic and racial tensions in the country before the 2019 elections made him think about relocating and the subsequent economic mismanagement sealed his decision. “It’s really not promising in Sri Lanka. I want to prioritise my daughter’s future,” he said.

If Sri Lankan software companies can power some of the world’s largest stock markets like the London Stock Exchange and Borsa Italiana, and some of the world’s busiest airlines like Qantas, it is because of local talent. A brain drain would spell disaster for the sector and the future of Sri Lanka.

Cyber security professional Asela Waidyalankara is already feeling the impact. “It’s our people who have helped us build world-class companies. The real competitive edge for our industry comes from people, and unfortunately they are now beginning to move out of the country. It is a big loss.”

Sanjiva Weerawarana, the founder of a software company, agrees. “We believe that 10 per cent of our technically skilled and experienced staff have already applied for migration and another 20-40 per cent are probably considering it,” he said.

It’s is not only IT professionals who are rushing for the exit. Labourers, shop owners, farmers, public servants and housewives are among those waiting patiently in a snaking queue outside Sri Lanka’s Immigration and Emigration Department headquarters, some of whom have camped out overnight. All of them are looking to escape Sri Lanka’s worst financial crisis in seven decades.

Among them was garment worker, 33-year-old Lenora. She decided to apply for a job as a maid in Kuwait after her husband was laid off from a small restaurant where he worked as a cook. She’d travelled 170 kilometres from Nuwara Eliya to hand in her papers for her first passport.

Lenora is determined to do what she can for a better life, for her and her children. “I want to spend two years in Kuwait then I’m sure I can earn and save enough to come back,” she said. “I want to educate my daughters. That’s the most important thing.”

The Government is keen to support more people like Lenora hoping to work abroad to boost remittances, which have halved in recent months, according to Central Bank data. Though remittances are desperately needed now, Sri Lanka risks losing a generation of its most ambitious and talented workers, who will be needed to rebuild the economy.

Experts worry that without a speedy solution to the economic catastrophe, the country “risks undermining its future growth”. Economist Malathy Knight, in an interview with Al Jazeera, pointed to Lebanon, which saw a significant exodus of local talent in the face of its own economic and political crisis. “Sri Lanka should learn from the experiences of other countries,” she said.

“It is vital to provide hope and opportunities to the youth”, Knight said, “without such efforts, Sri Lanka will continue to spiral downward economically and socially even after the economic crisis stabilises.”

By Michael Gregson