‘I must stay strong’: Hardships for workers fleeing Sri Lanka’s broken economy | Sri Lanka

Suvendra Mary hasn’t changed her clothes or had a decent meal in five days.

Last week, she and six other women boarded a bus from her hometown of Badulla, some 350 kilometers from Colombo, and arrived at the immigration and emigration department hoping to apply for their passports. Since then, the women have been sitting in a queue of at least a thousand others dreaming of leaving. Sri Lanka.

Mary hopes to find work as a domestic worker in Saudi Arabia. Her only goal is to send money home to her family, which is bearing the brunt of the economic crisis that has hit the country since it gained independence from the British in 1948.

The seriousness of the situation was laid bare on Wednesday by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe when he told parliament that after months of shortages “Our economy has completely collapsed”.

“I thought we could get our passports in one day, but now we stand in this queue for several days,” said Mary, 41. “When it rains, we sit under umbrellas. When it’s too sunny, we sit under the umbrellas. We do not move from our place. If we leave it, someone else will take it.”

These days, people queuing for days to buy fuel and cooking gas is a common thing. Annual headline inflation shot up to 45.3% in May this year. The Sri Lankan government is struggling to find enough foreign exchange to import essential goods, as protests continue across the island demanding the resignation of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

Sri Lankans gather outside the Immigration and Emigration Department to get their passports to leave the country amid the country's economic crisis.
Sri Lankans gather outside the Immigration and Emigration Department to get their passports to leave the country amid the country’s economic crisis. Photograph: Dinuka Liyanawatte/Reuters

A team from the International Monetary Fund is on the island to negotiate a rescue. But for people like Mary, leaving seems to be the only option to overcome poverty.

According to government statistics, more than 329,000 people applied for passports from January to June 15 this year. Last year, 382,504 passports were issued and in 2020 the figure was 207,692.

Chinthaka Pushpakumara, a 39-year-old father and cleaning supervisor from Polonnaruwa, some 227 km from Colombo, said he wanted to leave so his three children could have a better future. But he was worried about leaving them behind.

“It was not an easy decision to make. My youngest son is only one and a half years old. I must stay strong, otherwise my family will suffer,” Pushpakumara said.

He is not the only worker in the tourism industry to leave Sri Lanka, which relies heavily on income from tourism. Sanath Ukwatte, former president of the Sri Lanka Hotel Association, said the industry had lost some 15,000 professionals.

“There is more to leave. Us [hotel owners] they are very worried, but we cannot force them to stay. We are facing a challenging period right now,” he said. Most professionals in the tourism industry are looking for work in the Maldives, as well as in Dubai, Qatar or elsewhere in the Middle East.

A woman waits to apply for a passport at the Sri Lanka Immigration and Emigration Department.
A woman waits to apply for a passport at the Sri Lanka Immigration and Emigration Department. Photograph: Dinuka Liyanawatte/Reuters

Sri Lankans seeking work abroad are mostly semi-skilled workers such as plumbers, drivers and mechanics. The government this year has already sent 138,460 registered workers abroad compared to 122,321 last year. Many more have gone unrecorded.

Manusha Nanayakkara, Minister for Overseas Labor and Employment, said Sri Lankans going abroad to work were a good thing as the country needed foreign remittances. He said stores and other small-scale businesses were closing, putting many out of work.

On June 20, the cabinet of ministers approved a proposal to lower the legal age of women working as domestic workers abroad from 25 to 21, to encourage all migrant workers to register with the government.

However, leaving home is not always an easy decision. A video shared on social media recently is etched into Pushpakumara’s mind. “It was a video of a little boy calling his father as he was leaving for work. I couldn’t watch the video until the end. I turned off my phone. I know I have to stay strong.”

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