Losing our skills and our brains


For a country its size, Sri Lanka has an exceptionally high rate of migration – it is estimated that one in 20 Sri Lankan-born people live overseas. That’s a hefty number, and it’s a pity that there is a dearth of deep-dive data and information related to our migrant population. What we do know is that, since independence, Sri Lankans have been emigrating for a multitude of reasons – chief among them is seeking employment and education, but also escaping racial injustice, political victimisation, and the sheer lack of opportunities. 

Significant waves of mass migration included the droves of Tamil families who fled following the 1983 riots, the exit of many professionals during the nationalisation drive of the 1970s, and the exodus of the Burghers in the 1960s triggered by the Sinhala Only policy. Of over three million Sri Lankans estimated to live and work outside our shores, one third are permanently settled in other countries. 

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There is speculation that once again Sri Lanka is on the verge of a wave of high-skilled migration as more and more young and qualified professionals explore their options, not just to work overseas, but to settle permanently and build new lives outside their motherland. The conversations all point to a sense of hopelessness in Sri Lanka’s prospects, and frustration at the lack of opportunities to fulfil personal potential; that the system is too broken to be fixed any time soon and that young professionals are unwilling to fight the pervasive corruption and nepotism that are the order of the day. 

High-skilled migrants are usually those with university-level or equivalent formal qualifications, as well as those in careers with high levels of training and specialisation. Policy weaknesses and the ill health of their home economy serve as push factors for the migration of high-skilled professionals, who choose to move to countries that offer an attractive parcel of good living conditions and employment opportunities together with high wages and greater freedoms. 

Skilled migration has wide economic impacts for both the home economy and the host economy. Host economies find skilled migrants attractive for the productivity gains they offer by building capacity and their potential to innovate; the challenge there is to balance the opportunities to infuse new skills and thinking into an economy versus the provision of social welfare. 

For home economies such as ours, the fundamental truth is that the quality of our human capital is the ticket to developing our economy. We need the best skills and know-how of our professionals to be invested into our home economy; it is by infusing that talent and scaling that energy that Sri Lanka can invigorate both the production and consumption sides of our economy. When good, young, talent seeks to emigrate, Sri Lanka’s economy stands to lose out on enablers that have the potency to propel us beyond our current predicament. But alas, we seem stuck in a cycle; weary and exasperated. 

There is little data right now to offer as proof of what’s to come; instead, the “proof” is in the form of anecdotes of the queues at the passport office and the demand for consular services, and the many venting their frustrations publicly and privately. Real data of a pattern of skilled migration will only emerge in a few years as such applications are processed, and by then it will be too late if Sri Lanka wants to retain those citizens within its own economy. The longer we remain in denial about the frustrations of high skilled professionals, the longer we are likely to take to make the fundamental economic changes required to hold those citizens back.


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