In recent times, human capital flight from Sri Lanka has seen an indisputable uptick in the departure of educated youth and skilled workers in contrast to the exodus of unskilled and semi-skilled workers. Unlike domestic and construction workers migrating temporarily from underserved communities, arguably, the permanent loss of students and professionals weighs heavier for three reasons.
1. The demographic dividend
In addition to missing young workers in their most productive years, the risk of losing innovative thinkers to developed countries, as half of all tertiary-educated migrants are said by the recent World Development Report (2023) to be increasingly attracted to only four such countries, is a twofold blow to Sri Lanka. Consequently, the United Nations Population Fund’s warning about the closing window for a ‘demographic dividend’, the economic potential that results from investing in young people, rushes to mind with context.
When local students unable to gain entry to state universities encounter the dismal economic outlook and experience contempt for the political leadership, a disaffected generation ‘marks time’ in private higher education, waiting for their opportunity to move and live abroad.
The subsequent loss of students is immeasurable on the free public education they received up to secondary school. Associated with a shift in the age structure of Sri Lankan society, the creative input for public policy and technology-led production is likely untapped and passed over. It means that the working-age population will decline, causing the economy to stagnate further with incredibly much slower improvement in human development, cultural reproduction and national infrastructure unless foreign workers pick up the pace.
2. Shortage of essential white-collar workers
According to State Health Officials, the requirement of 4000 specialist doctors by 2025 is undermined by the migration of more than 350 eye specialists, consultant oncologists, paediatric surgeons and intensive care specialist doctors, amongst others, over the last year. Although both junior and senior health professionals have exhibited a trend of steady outmigration for training and in search of a higher standard of living than in the past. This surge was prompted by a confluence of push and pull factors.
These include but are not limited to the deepening urban-rural divide in standards of living, fewer opportunities for career development, wage differentials across countries, and better prospects for child development abroad. Crucially, the twin phenomena of indefinitely suspended vehicle permits for public servants and the broad hike in APIT (Advanced Personal Income Tax) was the last straw, as real wages in the public sector fell without indexation.
The impact of professional outmigration on Sri Lanka is incremental and peripheral. It is embedded within a ‘poly-crisis’ in the aftermath of a global pandemic and national awakening. One of the major constraints surfaced when the children’s ward of the Anuradhapura Teaching Hospital was shut down and merged after all three paediatricians had migrated.
A similar situation arose in Mullaitivu Hospital with no surgeons and only one paediatrician. It must be observed that the impact (longer waiting lists and negative clinal outcomes) is not limited to rural areas and in the health sector only. In the aviation industry, Sri Lankan flight delays to South Korea carrying migrant workers lasted 9 to 12 hours on four occasions, as of June 22, on account of no pilots on standby after 70 left in the last year due to below-industry standard pay. Moreover, it remains to be studied how the migration of mid-level tech workers in
2022 has affected the ICT labour market. Therefore, the full extent of professional outmigration has broader implications in intersectoral and civil society dimensions.
3. Siphoning of critical citizens
An aspect of outmigration that is overlooked in economic circles of policymaking is how it shapes the landscape of political participation. Much is also said regarding how outmigration affects the growth of transnational networks along professional and vocational connections and the decline of civic engagement via extended families, schools, local community and religious practice. How does it affect democracy? Research shows that although the influence of expatriate communities reaches deeper into the culture and social structure of their home country, they forego the right to vote when abroad via personal, postal, proxy or electronic voting. It leaves 3 to 4 million Sri Lankans disenfranchised. It is the outcome of a strategy by the political elite that not only exports unemployment but reduces voter turnout, denying migrants representation whilst holding themselves less accountable.
As the share of professional and student migrants grows, it can be inferred that more critical citizens will also be disenfranchised. The impact here is that their possible dissatisfaction with significant parties and governance will not translate to votes for new and minor parties with more vital concerns for migrants’ interests and welfare.
The ability to migrate with the freedom of movement helps each Sri Lankan student or professional migrant and his family to thrive with effort in developed countries, but not without an impact on sustainable economic growth, the public sector and democracy back home.
Improvement in individual social mobility for skilled permanent migrants abroad has been reciprocated by collective costs and vulnerabilities in Sri Lanka as the ripples of their absence are felt by all Sri Lankan citizens. Regulating migrant flows, reintegrating returning migrants and revitalizing the domestic economy through targeted government spending is an options in considering a practical framework to mitigate and reverse the brain drain.
(The author is a graduate in Global Studies from Monash University Australia with a specialization in International Relations and a Minor in Politics)
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