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What’s driving so many Sri Lankans to emigrate?

By Ravindra P. Rannan-Eliya

Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa recently observed that youth who had voted for the Government are now queuing up to obtain passports to go abroad. Sri Lanka has a culture of emigration with millions of Sri Lankan emigrating permanently or leaving temporarily for work in past decades, so the desire to emigrate isn’t new, but has the desire to leave grown?

Data from the Institute of Health Policy’s Sri Lanka Opinion Tracker Survey (SLOTS) indicates that 27% of Sri Lankans would like to emigrate if they had the chance, with the young and the educated wanting to migrate the most. Of those who would like to emigrate, one in four have plans to do so, or one in 16 Sri Lankans.

Comparisons with earlier years is difficult as the SLOTS survey is new, but comparison with earlier surveys, which used the same questions, implies that the number of Sri Lankans who want to migrate has likely doubled since three to five years ago, and this can be taken as a reasonable indicator of potential emigration, both legal and undocumented, from Sri Lanka once global travel restrictions imposed in response to Covid-19 are lifted.

Men are more likely than women to want to emigrate if given the chance, but the groups expressing the greatest desire to emigrate are the youth (aged 18-29 years) and university graduates, around one in two of whom would like to emigrate if given the chance, and those in the Northern and Eastern Provinces, around two in five of whom would like to emigrate if given the chance. However, it should be noted that in terms of translating the desire to migrate into actual plans, the better-off and more educated are far more likely to have started preparations, demonstrating that personal resources are also a key factor enabling Sri Lankans to migrate.

Since the youth are far more likely to want to emigrate, Prime Minister Rajapaksa’s point that it’s the youth who most want to emigrate does seem to be correct, but it doesn’t follow that this is because of disenchantment with the Government. But voters’ disenchantment with how they voted in 2019 and 2020 is sizeable. Of respondents who said that they voted for President Gotabaya Rajapaksa in 2019 (or the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna [SLPP] and Sri Lanka Freedom Party [SLFP] in 2020), one in three – referred to here as “disenchanted voters” – did not choose the current leadership when asked how they would vote if there was an election today.

Some indicated other individuals, but most responded they would not vote or refused to answer, suggesting that much of the disenchantment with the Government does not translate yet into support for the Opposition. It also suggests that the increased desire to migrate may reflect wider despair about the ability of the political system to offer change for the better.

When accounting for all factors in combination, only some have sizeable independent influence on the desire to emigrate. These include being youth, male, more educated, living in the Northern and Eastern Provinces and in urban areas, and being economically better-off. But amongst adults who voted for the current Government, the desire to emigrate is even more strongly influenced by being degree-educated and have a higher income, whilst disenchanted voters are three times as likely as other voters – referred here as “loyal voters” – to desire to emigrate.

This would confirm Prime Minister Rajapaksa’s second point that disenchantment with the Government is pushing former supporters to migrate, but it is the best educated and better-off voters who are being pushed the most to migrate. Pessimism about the economy and dissatisfaction with the Covid-19 response appear to be key drivers of disenchantment. Disenchanted voters assess their own household economic situation not that differently to loyal voters, with 66% reporting their household situation is worse than a year ago compared with 56% of loyal voters, which is little different to all adults (65%).

However, disenchanted voters are more pessimistic about prospects for the economy, with 66% saying they expect the economy to be worse in a year’s time, compared with only 59% of loyal voters, although they are less pessimistic than the overall public (72%). And this represents a complete collapse in public optimism from just prior to the 2019 Presidential Election, when 56% of Sri Lankans said that they expected the economy to be better in a year’s time.

Disenchanted voters are also less satisfied than loyal voters with the Government’s Covid-19 response. When asked how they assess the Government’s response, only 47% assess it as good, much less than loyal voters (74%). They also favour much stronger control of Covid-19 in the future. When asked how many Covid-19 deaths would be acceptable as the country lifts restrictions, almost half of disenchanted voters (46%) said that less than 100 deaths a year would be acceptable, compared with 77% of loyal voters who are willing to accept more deaths, and two-thirds of whom consider 1,000 deaths a year or more to be acceptable.

This preference of disenchanted voters for greater control of the virus is reflected in other views. A composite index of preference for greater control of the virus, which combines responses to several other questions, shows that disenchanted voters favour much more control of the virus than loyal voters. On the issue of Covid-19 control, their views are in practice the same as those of the overall public and those who did not vote for the current Government, implying that the greater official tolerance of Covid-19 spread since early 2021 has cost the Government significant support.

In summary, responses in the Sri Lanka Opinion Tracker Survey corroborate Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa’s claim that there is a surge in Sri Lankans, especially the youth, trying to migrate, and they confirm that much of this is driven by disenchantment of voters with the Government. They also indicate that much of this dissatisfaction is driven by pessimism about economic prospects and dissatisfaction with the Covid-19 response, in particular a preference for stronger control of Covid-19 versus just “living with the virus”.

The only positive aspect of this for the Government might be that many disenchanted voters do not appear to have switched their support to other parties, but this might only be a matter of time. However, from a national perspective, the increased pressures to emigrate by the youth and the most educated and affluent in society bodes badly for the country’s future economic and social prospects as global travel restrictions are lifted.

SLOTS surveys a national sample of adults (ages 18 and over) reached by random digit dialling of mobile numbers, and others coming from a national panel of respondents who were previously recruited through random selection. The survey was made possible by funding support from the Neelan Tiruchelvam Trust and others, but the sponsors played no role in the study design, and analysis and interpretation of findings.

(The writer is Executive Director and Fellow of the Institute of Health, Sri Lanka, and is Lead Investigator of its SLOTS programme. He was trained in public opinion polling at Harvard University, and has conducted numerous surveys over three decades)