Sri Lankans seeing social media posts by foreigners, usually from a developed country, gleefully flitting through dozens sometimes over a hundred countries snapping selfies, are often gripped with envy not because of their experiences but because most local passport holders would struggle to get access to many countries.
This constraint experienced time and again by the public will not strike a chord of empathy with Government officials off on overloaded junkets funded by public money. These politicians will not be aware of what little trust is placed in Sri Lankan passports and how minor the concessions provided for it are. So meagre are they that the Sri Lankan passport has been consistently placed among the worst in the world, failing to rise above the worst 20 even seven years after the end of the war.
The Henley & Partners Visa Restrictions Index, which is a global ranking of countries based on the freedom of travel for their citizens, since 2006 has kept track of how accessible passports of various countries are. Under the latest tabulation released earlier this month the worst performer, yet again, was Afghanistan.
Sri Lanka, also true to form, remained at the bottom end along with Sudan, Iraq, Syria and North Korea. Liberia, Burundi, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Democratic Republic of Congo, Lebanon, Kosovo, Yemen, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Iran, Nepal, Palestinian Territory, Sudan, Libya, Somalia, and Pakistan were the other countries with similar woes.
Most Sri Lankan travellers used to being fingerprinted and facing regular demands for extra paperwork not requested from other tourists will not be surprised by this. In fact, with the exception of Singapore and Maldives, Sri Lankans require visa for virtually every other destination and even for visa on arrival require letters to be presented at the check in counter before they are even allowed to board the plane.
For those who would argue that Sri Lanka’s security and issue of illegal migrants might be the stumbling block, the study presents some interesting findings. Despite recent political turmoil, countries such as Myanmar and Pakistan among others fare better on the grading than Sri Lanka. In the last two years even Syria and Libya have better access. This clearly means that Sri Lankan officials have to concentrate harder on providing seamless travel for their citizens.
Almost weekly there are top official visits to Sri Lanka from the US, European Union, Middle East, East Asian and Scandinavian countries but Sri Lankans still find they are treated little better than criminals when they attempt to travel to these countries. Surely Sri Lankan officials have to use their much advertised improved relations with the world to improve the country’s image and thereby open up opportunities to its citizens.
Even countries such as China, which Sri Lanka’s Government is working hard to return to a rosy relationship with and incidentally is the second largest source for tourists, does not allow for free travel for individuals. They must travel with groups or provide a letter from an official source in China for travel approval. Failure to promote such basic access means a lopsided situation is created where outsiders can have access to Sri Lanka but the same freedom is not provided to perfectly honest citizens.