Conflicts & War

Sri Lankans look overseas for a way out of economic crisis

By Aanya Wipulasena

Colombo, Feb 7 (EFE).- Fifth-five year old W.D. Karunawathi, who is a mother of three, has been queuing along with thousands of other Sri Lankans for two days outside the Department of Immigration and Emigration in Colombo for a long-awaited visa that will allow her to work overseas and escape the economic crisis plaguing Sri Lanka.

Runaway inflation and an unaffordable cost of living led Sri Lanka to record the highest number of migrants in nearly a decade in 2022.

The migrants are driven by the idea that the only way to weather the crisis is to leave the country in search of opportunities.

“I am going to Saudi Arabia to work as a housemaid. I don’t have a job here, and my husband is a daily wage worker. He does not get much work these days because of the crisis. So, we decided that I have to go and send money home,” said Karunawathi, who hails from a village in the southern district of Badulla.

The government eased migration regulations last year amid the unprecedented economic crisis facing the country.

According to data from the Ministry of Labor and Foreign Employment, 311,269 people migrated for work from Sri Lanka in 2022, exceeding the previous record of 300,703 people who left the country in 2014.

The ministry’s data shows that most popular migratory destinations were countries, such as Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, U.A.E, and Oman, where many Sri Lankans find employment as domestic workers and unskilled labor.

“For many of us, there is no hope in staying in the country anymore. I plan to go first and help my family join me later. If I can, I will help the whole country to join me,” M. Rashmi, who also hopes to migrate to Saudi Arabia, told EFE.

Sri Lanka has been plunged into a deep economic crisis, driven by factors such as the damage caused to the tourism sector by the Easter Sunday attacks in 2019, which left 269 dead, and the closure of borders due to the Covid-19 pandemic in early 2020.

The lack of foreign currency left the island country without enough money to cover basic needs like fuel and medicine, a situation that sparked months-long mass protests and led to the ouster of then-President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

The government is now under President Ranil Wickremesinghe and Sri Lanka is awaiting a $2.9 billion bailout package from the International Monetary Fund, but inflation continues to run rampant although it is beginning to decline.

In November, the year-on-year inflation stood at 65 percent and declined to 59.2 percent in the following month, according to the country’s central bank.

Food inflation followed a similar pattern declining to 59.3 percent in December from 69.8 percent in the previous month.

However, the living cost remains unbearable for locals as food, transportation, and electricity tariffs have increased while their incomes have remained stagnant or decreased.

According to a report by the World Food Programme, 36 percent of Sri Lankan families are food insecure, with the average family facing problems getting enough food, or eating more than one meal a day.

The search for greener pastures abroad is not without its dangers, especially those who seek to benefit from the desperation of potential migrants with false ads or by providing tourist visas only to leave them to their fate in the destination country.

The Sri Lankan government has promised to take steps to crack down on businesses scamming desperate people by promising jobs and deserting them in foreign countries with no help.

Recently, UAE Human Resources Minister Dr. Abdulrahman Abdulmannan Al Awar assured Sri Lanka that his country will take “stern action against those who bring foreign workers to the country through illegal methods.”

Karunawathi is aware of the risks, having already worked for some time in the Middle East, but sees no other option but to emigrate.

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