Pushpendra Koddituwakku, an automobile technologist today lives in Australia. He left Sri Lanka in 2007 together with his wife who is also a professional. Neither one of them want to ever return to Sri Lanka other than on holiday to visit family and friends. They no longer want to live in this country.
“I simply could not bear the stress of living in Sri Lanka anymore. I want to live in a place where I can work and function freely — without fear, and without the constant stress and strain of financial instability,” Pushpendra told me before leaving. He is just one of thousands of professionals who applied to emigrate. The reason is the same. They see no future for themselves and their children in this country. The sense of desperation is such that they are willing to go to a strange country and re-start their lives.
“I have had enough of the sub standard life here. I can no longer bear the lawlessness, the exorbitant cost of living, the constant threat to personal safety. Above all this what affects me most is the lack of respect and a basic sense of decency people appear to have from one another,” says Pushpendra.
Pushpendra’s words rang in my ears last week when I learnt from two eyewitness accounts that a motorist driving down the Colombo-Baseline road was intimidated and threatened by a brainless brawn waving a gun. Not only was he threatened with a gun but his stationary car got kicked and thumped. The reason being because the man did not drive his car up the sidewalk fast enough or simply get out of the way at a traffic light – which had turned red — in order to make way for the buffoon behind him who was riding his four-wheel drive accompanied by a plethora of gun wielding goons who for want of a designation are called “bodyguards.” The “VVIP” it was rumoured was that erstwhile human Mervyn Silva’s son – Malaka. (This incident happened a day or two before the father got booted from ministerial office).
Sri Lanka has sat back and watched exodus after exodus of qualified professionals, since 1970. The Sri Lanka Foreign Employment Bureau says that each year more than 200,000 Sri Lankans venture abroad for employment.
Official statistics state that 1.5 million Sri Lankans work abroad – of this 90 percent are employed in the Middle East. The Department for Immigration and Emigration says that over 7000 students go overseas for study every year. How many of them return and use their acquired skills in Sri Lanka is not known.
The first major exodus took place under Mrs. Bandaranaike’s left wing government when Australia, Canada and New Zealand opened their borders to Asians. Thousands of Sinhalese and Tamils took the opportunity to flee the country. The Sinhalese were fed up with bread queues, corruption and anti private sector policies. The Tamil professionals and the Burghers saw the coming instability after the government imposed a series of anti minority policies.
This exodus slowed down dramatically when the J.R. Jayewardene government came to power. There was hope that the country had turned the corner. That hope did not last long. The 1983 riots saw the biggest ever emigration in the history of this country. It was no longer just the professionals who fled. Hundreds of thousands of Tamil youth went where ever they could. For the first time Sri Lankans settled down in non-English speaking European countries such as Sweden, Norway and West Germany.
The country lost an entire generation of Tamils, Sinhalese and Muslims who did not have the option of claiming refugee status found another method to escape the economic down turn. They found employment in the Middle East. Although a majority of those were unskilled workers, there is a substantial number of skilled and semi skilled Sri Lankans working there.
The 1990s saw the steady stream of emigration some lawfully, mostly unlawfully. This has continued up to date. The professionals continue to emigrate to the traditional English speaking nations but the others take whatever options they can find. Human smuggling became a big business. It still is.
Tens of thousands are today working illegally in Japan, Italy, Spain Germany etc. The only people it seems who were staying back were those who had no options and those who were still comfortably off.
Currently, Sri Lanka appears to be on the threshold of another major exodus of its people. A sense of helplessness is engulfing society. Despite the defeat of the LTTE last year.
It is no surprise that no government department has figures for the number of people who have emigrated from this country. The Central Bank, the Department of Immigration and Emigration and the Foreign Ministry do not have a clue. The only figures available is from the Foreign Employment Bureau which keeps a tab of Sri Lankans leaving for employment abroad. It appears that like everything else, the computer revolution has bypassed key government agencies.
The Foreign Employment Bureau estimates 1.5 million Sri Lankans are legally working overseas. This figure does not include the tens of thousands of people who have left for good or the hundreds of thousands who are refugees.
According to the UNHCR, 7, 566 Sri Lankans applied for asylum last year.
According to the British Foreign Office the Sri Lankan diaspora in the UK is estimated at over 200,000. A vast majority of these are professionals. Canada has over 65,000 Sri Lankans holding Canadian citizenship. On top of this, there are tens of thousands of people who have claimed refugee status in that country.
With the signing of the Ceasefire Agreement in 2002, a large number of Sri Lankan youth who were working abroad after completing their studies in foreign universities returned home. Sri Lankan expats including Tamils began investing in the country. A good example of this was the booming property market. Most of the luxury flats that mushroomed in Colombo and the suburbs were bought by Sri Lankan expats.
Jaffna was booming with 12% growth. The growth in tourism appeared to be unstoppable. Despite a high level of corruption, Sri Lankans whether they were living here or abroad were optimistic that peace would prevail and the economic growth seen during that period would give them opportunities in this country. The country was upbeat and optimism was in the air. Then came the change of government and Eelam War IV.
And now, Sri Lanka similarly to the 1980s appears to be on the threshold of another major exodus of its people. A sense of helplessness is engulfing society. Mahinda Rajapaksa’s authoritarianism coupled with the cabinet and cronies of the government are having the time of their lives; poor governance or worse the sheer lack of it, is affecting every strata of life. While the policemen and clerks are charged for bribery and corruption, government leaders, their extended families and friends are indulging in multi million dollar deals.
It is true bribery and corruption have been a part and parcel of daily life in this country for decades. But what is shocking is that it is done so openly. What is distasteful is that at the same time the very same leaders are preaching to the masses to “tighten their belts” for the betterment of the country. Anybody who complains about the fast rising cost of living or anything else are “traitors.” Those who are milking the country are the “patriots.”
The economic hardships that only affected the urban areas, is now slowly but surely, affecting the whole country.
Thousands of people in the north are living in refugee camps. Lawlessness is becoming endemic. Harassment, intimidation, the arrest of innocent people under anti terrorist laws, illegal detention, torture, abductions and killings continue. The lack of faith in the law enforcement agencies have forced ordinary law abiding people to take the law into their own hands. Those who are perceived to be rebel sympathisers or as “anti-government” live in constant fear.
Young people who go abroad for studies no longer want to return once they have completed their education. The dream of most children is to get out of the country as soon as possible. Parents will sell whatever they have to, so they can find the money to send their children to foreign universities and polytechnics with the advice never to return. It is no longer for financial reasons alone. They will be the first to admit their first preference would be to live here — the extended family, the friends and the relatively laid back life style are all too attractive to be left behind just for the money.
A nation that continuously loses their best is destined to remain a backward country. It is the young who bring new ideas and are the quickest to learn new skills. They play a crucial role in taking a society forward – economically, culturally and emotionally.
“In Sri Lanka we make money. But we cannot save. Neither can we live peacefully. Our lives are full of stress and strain. So what is the point,” says Pushpendra. The 29 year old when he left was studying to be a Chartered Engineer. He already had an advanced diploma in automobile engineering. His application to emigrate to Australia was accepted and he left with his graduate wife and daughter Hiruni. He is just one of many thousands who are taking that option.
Where do we go from here?
T20 World Cup