Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Once known as being the best fed, most educated and healthiest people in South Asia, Sri Lankans are facing the bleak prospect of a full blown economic crisis that will dramatically push back hard won social gains of several decades. The World Bank estimates that 500,000 people have fallen below the poverty line, which is an equivalent of five years’ worth of progress in fighting poverty.

Food and fuel shortages, escalating costs of basic goods, import restrictions, school closures and strains on the health system, partly due to the mishandling of the Covid-19 pandemic, have resulted in long queues at the passport office as one in four Sri Lankans, mostly the young and educated, say they want to leave the country. Skyrocketing food prices have left breadwinners struggling to feed their families, forcing them to cut back on the quantity and quality of food, as government leaders go with begging bowl in hand to all and sundry. Once regarded as a basket case, even Bangladesh has turned into a benefactor.

The passport office queues, heavy demand for immigration lawyers and many grievances about daily life aired on social media are pointing to the fact that most people are not happy with their lot. They feel they are being dealt an unfair hand and that there is no hope in a country riddled with corrupt politicians, systemic discrimination and an ever widening gap between the rich and the poor.

The less fortunate are forced to endure harsh conditions working for demanding employers in foreign households, factories and offices while the more educated and privileged get to try their luck in a western country where the weather, quality of life and equal treatment leave a lot to be desired.

A recent survey showed that increasing numbers of Sri Lankans want to leave the country, more than at any time in the past five years. The findings were released by the Institute for Health Policy (IHP) and confirmed Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa’s observations that the youth who had voted for the government were queuing up to obtain passports to go abroad.

About one in four Sri Lankans would like to migrate if they had the chance. The youth and the educated want to migrate the most, with around one in two of them wanting to leave the country. Of those who would like to migrate, one in four had plans to do so. People cited inadequate incomes, skyrocketing prices, selling off national assets and haphazard governance as reasons for leaving.

In this desperate scenario of doom and gloom, why shouldn’t anyone who can just leave? Why sacrifice their children’s futures to serve a country that has no hope of redemption? Leaving must be the right answer.

But not according to Prashan De Visser, president and founder of Sri Lanka Unites, an organisation working to empower the younger generation and motivate them to coexist peacefully while giving back to their country. “Just because a bunch of robbers come to your house and ransack it, you don’t pack up and leave; you stay and fight. These thieves, uneducated individuals, who have come to our sacred halls of power are ransacking our country. We have to stay and fight and do our part and we can,” he told Groundviews in an interview.



Why are people leaving the country or feeling they need to leave?

There has always been an exodus of capable people with three million Sri Lankans living off shore. Waves of people are leaving and the brain drain has a direct impact on hopes of becoming a developed country. Young people across country are absolutely frustrated with the political establishment, political parties and politicians. There is no one with a clear vision or to give us hope for the future. This generation sees world more clearly because of social media, access to information and interaction with other young people across the world. The choice is to go because they are not going to achieve their potential here. There are some who are not seeking to leave the country forever but intend to return. However, once you  get sucked into life there, it becomes impossible to come back. We need to address this because the country can’t withstand another generation or two of a brain drain.

How can people be convinced people to stay?

Not everyone will be inspired by their duty and responsibility to nation. People who are leaving are the privileged ones who can get visas to go abroad but we have a responsibility to those less privileged. People who want to leave should realise that if you go to the west, your success is not guaranteed, so these exaggerated notions should be taken away. We have forgotten what we have going for us; this is our birth right. There are people who have made a success here, having seen opportunities and achieved more here than they could have anywhere else. We have an ageing population, parents who provided and cared for us. Young adults are leaving behind parents who are struggling with ageing by themselves; but some people do think they should stay and take care of their parents.



How can minorities be made to feel they are part of the country so they don’t want to leave?

Governments and politicians have failed us and created a divisive culture of divide and rule. Fellow citizens are treated as second class. We have a responsibility to speak out against injustices; for too long we have been passively against it or turned away. The cost to pay is that people will embrace extremism and send country back through cycles of violence. You and I can’t continue to be silent about discrimination and racism and have to speak out. People are realising that politicians have created hate to hide their political incompetence. The objective is to steal and to create a dynasty and to hide your sins – the best way to do this is to play the race card divide the nation so that it is easy to rule.

What gives you any cause for optimism?

Given everything we have been through as a country, we have to be optimistic regardless of how bad the situation is, as it is darkest before light. This generation can be the generation that thinks beyond themselves and have a vision for the country where no one is a second class citizen. Young people want to serve, be honest and to be held accountable, living beyond parameters of their own selfish needs so we need to invest in them to come together across ethnic, religious, professional and regional lines. This is what gives me hope. For 15 years I have been dedicated to working with young people, mining for the incredible talent of young Sri Lankans who are the greatest asset of our nation. We need to ensure that they are not depressed or lose the capacity to hope. There will be overwhelming challenges, but with enough support and investment in this generation, we have a shot.

What changes have you seen through your work with Sri Lanka Unites?

Students who believed that violence was the only way and hated others today believe in peace. Sinhalese from south who thought every Tamil was a terrorist now see the injustices done and speak out for them. There are hundreds of stories of young people whose minds have been transformed; they want to be part of the solution.



What do you hope for your children’s future?

We have two sons aged three and four. If we went abroad we could have a more affluent lifestyle but we decided to stay and serve here. The question is whether our  sons will curse us 20 years from now and ask why we didn’t leave. That means I have a responsibility to work hard so that they will  proud of our generation for not giving up and we can talk about the history of violence, broken structures, poverty and corruption in the past tense. We would have lived up to our potential and become a model to other nations – a success story from bankruptcy to a thriving nation. It seems improbable and impossible right now but all things that inspired us seemed improbable until they were done. We have to give it a shot, give it with everything we have got. Politicians and political parties have no solution or vision so it is we the people who have to transform the country.