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President Maithripala Sirisena during a recent speech to newly-appointed teachers had pinpointed migration of professionals as one of the key impediments for development. He had called on professionals who had benefited from the free education system to remain in Sri Lanka out of a sense of duty. Unfortunately, the reality is that duty is often insufficient to counter the lure of better opportunity abroad but that does not mean that migration has to be a problem for growth.   

Last month Prof. Ricardo Hausmann, who is the Director of Harvard’s Center for International Development and Professor of the Practice of Economic Development at the Kennedy School of Government, delivering a lecture in Colombo, laid out a compelling case on how well-managed immigration and emigration could benefit the economic fortunes of countries.   

Drawing from data, Prof. Hausmann showed how in other countries, foreigners were a significant segment of the population. In the US, one in seven individuals is estimated to be a foreigner, while in Singapore one in every two individuals is a foreigner. In contrast, in Sri Lanka only one in 535 people is a foreigner. 

Migration could help Sri Lanka improve its services sector, diversify exports, add skills to its workforce and attract foreign direct investment. In fact progressive migrant policies have been used in other parts of the world to improve economic development and the same could be done in Sri Lanka.      

In the experience of Singapore, India, Vietnam and most other dynamic economies, three channels of knowhow transfer stand out: FDI, immigration and diaspora networks. All these are linked to the free movement of people and if Sri Lanka continues to refuse to allow people from around the world to live and work in Sri Lanka, in limited numbers obviously, achieving growth could be slower.  

Large industries in the US, such as car manufacturing in Detroit and Silicon Valley, were begun by immigrants. Almost half the world’s Fortune 500 companies were formed by immigrants or their children, while Bangladesh’s very successful garment industry was founded by a Korean company, whose employees later went on to start their own businesses. Bangalore and Hyderabad are two cities that thrive because of vibrant immigration links, and because of Indians who have returned to become IT entrepreneurs.

There are many examples of immigration leading to better economic opportunities. Even when Albania saw backward migration of unskilled labour from Greece but it resulted in growth. There are examples of companies in Sri Lanka that are successful because of global links with perhaps IT and apparel being top examples. But the overwhelming discourse is still that allowing people to come into Sri Lanka is bad but thousands of professionals migrate out of Sri Lanka every year.  

Obviously Sri Lanka needs to have progressive visa laws, with strong enforcement and accountability. The Government must also have a holistic approach to economic management and should continue its reform program but the Sri Lankan public must also have a more nuanced and practical discourse on immigration, which is not driven by agendas but by genuinely looking at the country’s best interests. 


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