By Thulasi Muttulingam and Surani Perera
What is the Problem?
There are several markers that Sri Lanka is still very far from being a developed country. One of the most obvious..? Most developed countries not only retain their youth but also actively solicit them from other countries to sustain their burgeoning economies. In Sri Lanka though, planeloads—and even more worrisomely now, boatloads of youth leave our shores, or try to, each day.
What is so inhospitable about our country that it makes our youth so desperate to be anywhere else but here? In an effort to find out directly from them, Ceylon Today interviewed youth from a wide cross-section of society as well as having talked to sociologists, economists, employers and policy makers to get to the root of the problem.
Targeting a group of youth and asking them, “Whom among you want to migrate?” elicited the immediate response, “Who wouldn’t want to? We all want to migrate.” Asked to give specific reasons, the answers ranged from better lifestyle opportunities to more respect and recognition for their work in developed countries.
Economist-turned-politician Dr. Harsha de Silva agrees. “There is a decided ‘older people’ bias in our society. Companies prefer to hire people with ‘experience’; even in the government sector, after people retire, they are brought back as ‘consultants’ leaving little space up the career ladder for youth.”
He further pointed out that young people are sidelined on entrepreneurial spaces as well. “Our banks and financial institutions are very traditional in the way they do business. They ask for collateral, which young people do not have. Youth may have many good ideas but not the collateral to back it up when asking for loans. In developed countries, they have rich individuals and companies acting as venture capitalists to finance good ideas; such financing is missing in Sri Lanka.”
A number of youth we spoke to also brought up the salary issue, mentioning that salaries in Sri Lanka are not commensurate with the cost of living. Director General of the Employers’ Federation, Ravi Peiris, maintains that the salaries are simply the result of the forces of supply and demand in the job market, and pointed out that there is a surfeit of employees in some sectors such as accountancy, while not enough in others such as plumbing.
“You can’t find plumbers in some areas for even Rs 1,000 a day. But, accounts assistants and audit trainee receive training on-the-job too, so due to mutual benefit the salaries in these sectors are low.”
The head of the International Organization for Migration’s (IOM) Migration Management Unit, Shantha Kulasekara, concurred on the issue of some mainstream sectors in the job market being over-represented, and thus, having a low demand whilst workers are in more demand in other less sought-after sectors.
“The Sri Lankan economy is growing at eight percent. The official unemployment rate is six percent. On one hand, we have a growing economy whereas on the other, people keep complaining that there are no jobs. However, we are also seeing some industrialists complain that there are not enough people to fill certain vacancies. There is a huge demand within the country for carpenters, masons, electricians and caregivers.
“The problem is due to a misperception amongst our people that a university education is necessary for all jobs. Right now they all study the same mainstream courses in higher education. Naturally, they all can’t land jobs in those specific fields due to the supply and demand factor. Then they have the illusion, ‘if we go abroad we’ll be fine.’
“It is not necessarily true. In the Middle East, for example, where many people go for work, we have stiff competition from the likes of India and Bangladesh. They provide very cheap labour with which we can’t compete. A driver or maid, for example, will earn the equivalent of Rs 20,000, which is really not worth the while of translocating to another country.
People need to know that there are jobs here too where they can earn the equivalent or even more. Some of these markets, such as the domestic caregiver segment, will continue to have a demand no matter what the state of the economy is,” said Kulasekara.
One youth agreed there were prospects off the beaten track for young people to be employed in, and as such, had never considered migrating. He brought up an unexpected answer on why he had, at one point, wanted to migrate – his sexual orientation. Kicked out two years ago at the age of 21 by his family when he ‘came out’ as a homosexual, he says he was so deeply upset by the reception accorded to him by relatives that he considered migrating to a more progressive country. However, he has since found his soulmate and settled down, much to the bewilderment of his family who had apparently hoped it was just a ‘passing phase.’
In the two years since, he has been accepted by friends but still hasn’t made much progress with his family. “I took over a decade to come to terms with my orientation so I can understand why my family would need time to accept this,” he says. His thoughts of migrating evaporated after he settled down with his partner in Colombo, and seeing that they didn’t have to put up with harassment as had been expected. “I go with him everywhere, even to rural areas. We haven’t been discriminated against or even smirked at. But then we are also mature in the image we present to the public. We don’t engage in public displays of affection; that would be just asking for it.”
While the young man above provided a minority perspective on what else other than the economy could drive away our youth, it nevertheless became clear from the reasons given by most of our respondents that economic reasons are the main reason for wishing to leave.
According to a Colombo University sociologist Prof. S.T. Hettige, a large number of young people wanting to and trying to get out of the country is not a good sign for the country. “Of course there are worse indicators, but young people are the future of any country. Young people want to leave because they want to look for a better place to live. The increased economic pressure is one of the reasons. In the 1970s what was available for 15 cents now costs as much as 15 rupees. So prices have gone up by almost 1,000 percent as a result of economic liberalization. However, many young people here go abroad to engage in manual labour like cleaning garbage, driving and gardening. In effect, they are running away from this country to do work that is worse off.”
While Professor Hettige’s research in 2010 led him to calculate that over 50 percent of youth wanted to leave the country, Founder/President of the youth movement for reconciliation, Sri Lanka Unites, Prashan de Visser places the figure at closer to ninety percent for youth of the North and East.
De Visser, who has interacted with teenagers and young adults across the island for over three years, sources the problem to the lack of a cohesive Sri Lankan identity. According to him, youth from all over Sri Lanka had brought up the problem of not being able to relate to being a Sri Lankan or ‘feeling’ like one due to the lack of a common Sri Lankan identity or dream. While a nationwide phenomenon among the youth as he saw it, he also said that it was especially so for the youth of the Northern areas.
Could that be one reason why 99 percent of the boatloads of people to Australia are Tamils? According to Development Economist of the Point Pedro Institute of Development, Dr. Muttukrishna Sarvananthan, the reason for most Tamils leaving the Northern peninsula is economic. They have been sold a dream of greener pastures by the human smuggling cartels operating the boats.
Boatloads of Tamils
As to why a disproportionate number of the emigrants are Tamils, the answer might be a combination of de Visser’s observation as well as the issue brought up by Sri Lankan Navy authorities that Australia favoured Tamil migrants over the Sinhalese by hardly deporting any Tamils.
A recent video interview by the Al Jazeera network of migrants brought back by the Sri Lankan Navy bears this out. According to the men, all those who had gone before them had found refuge in Australia without being turned back and this gave them hope that they too could make it there. The government of Australia, acting on the official complaints made by the Sri Lankan Navy’s vice admiral (according to the Australian) has promptly deported a Tamil man, Dayan Anthony, over a week ago with threats to deport several more.
Anthony, on his arrival back in Colombo, was hosted by a government-sponsored press conference where he recanted all claims of torture he had made to the Australian government and said he had been duped by the smugglers into believing that he could make good in Australia. But among his many cautious answers as to how he was duped, his answer as to his plans for the future was, “Finding a job – perhaps abroad.”
As they say, the more some things change, the more they stay the same. According to Indrani (47), a mother fromBatticaloa who sent her eldest son (24) by boat to Australia six months ago, her son was ‘pushed’ out of the country by both the government and the ‘movement’ (Pillayan Group).
With a Master’s degree in Tamil as well as a diploma in English, her son had had to resort to taking on jobs not commensurate with his university education, such as masonry, to support himself. He had managed to find a job as a school teacher, but due to political interference at the local-level, his job was withdrawn from him even though a letter of appointment had already been given. Seeing her son crushed by this, the mother had sold a plot of land belonging to her to raise money to send her son to Australia.
“They originally quoted a sum of Rs 1.2 million but I bargained and brought it down to Rs 700,000; half to be paid immediately and the other half when my son reached Australia. He is still at the detention centre there, but I have hopes that he will soon be released and be able to get a job there, preferably in the government.”
According to Dr. Harsha de Silva, a two-pronged attempt needs to be made in order to retain our youth; collaborating with the diasporas and improving our infrastructure internally in order to provide better opportunities for the young people.
“We should never forget that Prabakaran was a creation of the lack of opportunities in the North. Both the Tamil National Alliance and the Southern political parties need to collaborate on a sustainable solution to overcome this.
“As for Australia – I am amazed at the reports of all these boat people trying to escape to Australia. It is happening every day now. What is Australia? A country that came about due to the hard work of deported convicts. If they can come to this level with a history of only 200 years, why can’t we work to improve the infrastructure of our country to match it?
We do have to work on those infrastructure issues – or our people will continue to vote with their feet – by walking off on to the first boat available. So Christmas Island and Cocos Island will be result.”