Brain drain in Sri Lanka: A tragedy with a long term economic effect

This craze for migration is going to have a huge detrimental effect on Sri Lanka as it will be left with very few skilled workers to develop and contribute to the Sri Lankan economy.

Debdeep Mukherjee Mar 21, 2023
People wait to collect their passports at the Immigration and Emigration Department in Sri Lanka (Photo: Twitter)

With the mass exodus of skilled and semi-skilled Sri Lankan professionals of prime working age out of the country for greener pastures, the crisis-hit island nation is headed towards bigger problems in the near future. Unfortunately, the government is also encouraging migration for increasing remittances and keeping the native economy afloat and ensuring the migrant workers’ families are able to fulfill their basic requirements. With remittance, the government hopes to reign in the economic unrest but it would lead to larger problems in future.

Sri Lankans have been migrating out to Australia, UK, US and other European countries apart from the Gulf for decades. The first wave was witnessed in the 1950s when the English-speaking Burghers, a small minority and a descendant group from an ethnic mix of Portuguese, Dutch and British settlers during colonial times, moved to Australia. Their rapid exodus was due to the direct consequence of Sri Lanka government imposing the Sinhala Language Act, mandating all government business to be conducted only in Sinhalese, the language of the majority Sinhalese population.

The next wave of outbound migrants occurred during the country’s ethnic riots in 1983 with the Sinhalese targeting minority Tamils who number 15 per cent of the population. Many Tamils migrated and now reside in Europe and the United States. The current outflow of professionals mostly to the Middle East, Europe and the US is the third wave of migration influenced by economic distress and not institutional discrimination or ethnic unrest.
Steady exodus and its negative effects

This craze for migration is going to have a huge detrimental effect on Sri Lanka as it will be left with very few skilled workers to develop and contribute to the Sri Lankan economy. According to figures released by the Sri Lankan Foreign Employment Bureau, more than 300,000 Sri Lankans left the country with secured jobs overseas in 2022, the highest in history.

Another negative effect this would likely have on Sri Lanka is international companies would get another reason not to invest in the island as its best talents move out. With more and more youth looking for a way to slip out of the country, Sri Lanka’s situation can be compared with that of Yemen or Syria where the majority population wants to move out, undergoing psychological trauma and lifelong stress of being forced out of circumstances to leave their own homes.
This delicate situation can be craftily manipulated by drug trafficking networks and terrorist groups who can try to radicalize jobless youths vulnerable to temptations of earning quick money and helping their families. Parallels can be drawn with Afghanistan where hundreds of Afghans fell prey to act as smugglers of drugs in and out of Asia.

Educating youth against migration

When so many people want to migrate, human traffickers can also exploit the situation by tempting the Sri Lankans to migrate and charge exorbitant amounts to facilitate their transit but without fullproof guarantees.

To stem further migration, the Sri Lankan government with the help of the IMF, other donor agencies, and even India, should chalk out a clear plan to involve, hire skilled and unskilled workers and use their talents to build infrastructure and resilient organisations, strong enough to provide stable future to upcoming generations. National awareness programmes educating the youth about their duties to rebuild their country and the risks involved in migrating out must be propagated so that no Sri Lankan falls prey to deceitful traps.

(The author is a master's graduate in International Security from the University of Nottingham, UK and a master's in Conflict Analysis and Peacebuilding from Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. Views are personal. He can be reached at

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