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The immigration discourse


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Debate on Sri Lanka’s efforts to sign trade deals has now largely devolved into a debate on immigration. Professional organisations are predominantly against the idea of allowing foreigners, especially qualified foreigners, into the country on the basis that they would take jobs away from locals. Such arguments are also indicative of the need to have a stronger discourse on xenophobia and what it means to have a Sri Lankan identity and what it means to be Sri Lankans.    

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 on Wednesday, 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. 

This is a problem because unlike other countries, Sri Lanka had failed to add new products to its export basket, and therefore was constrained by exports that could be easily duplicated elsewhere. He also pointed out that this was linked to low FDI and other issues in Sri Lanka’s economy, for which immigration could be a feasible solution.    

Economies grow by adding new products and services to their production portfolio, and not by producing more of the same kinds of products. The key to such diversification is access to know-how, but know-how often has to come from abroad. This is because it is often easier to move brains to new countries than to move new know-how into brains. 

In the experience of Singapore, India, Vietnam and most other dynamic economies, three channels of know-how 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. 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. 

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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