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Suvendra Mary hasn’t changed her clothes and hasn’t had a decent meal for five days.

Last week, she and six other women boarded a bus from their hometown of Badulla, about 350 km from Colombo, and arrived at the Immigration and Emigration Department hoping to ask for their passport. Since then, the women have been sitting in a queue of at least a thousand others dreaming of leaving Sri Lanka.

Mary hopes to find work as a cleaner in Saudi Arabia. His sole purpose is to send money to his family which is suffering the country’s biggest economic collapse since gaining independence from the British in 1948.

The gravity of the situation was laid bare by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe on Wednesday when he told parliament that after months of shortages “our economy has completely collapsed”.

“I thought we could get our passports in one day, but now we’re in this queue for several days,” said Mary, 41. “When it rains, we sit under umbrellas. When it’s too sunny, we sit under umbrellas. We don’t leave our place. If we leave, someone else will take it.

These days, people queuing for days to buy fuel and cooking gas are commonplace. Headline year-on-year inflation soared to 45.3% in May this year. The Sri Lankan government is struggling to find enough foreign currency to import essential goods, as protests continue across the island demanding the resignation of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

Sri Lankans gather outside the Department of Immigration and Emigration to get their passports to leave the country amid the country’s economic crisis Photograph: Dinuka Liyawatte/Reuters

A team from the International Monetary Fund is on the island to negotiate a rescue plan. But for people like Mary, leaving seems like the only option to overcome poverty.

According to government statistics, more than 329,000 people applied for passports from January to June 15 this year. Last year, 382,504 passports were issued and in 2020 the number was 207,692.

Chinthaka Pushpakumara, a 39-year-old father and housekeeping supervisor from Polonnaruwa, about 227 km from Colombo, said he wanted to leave so his three children would have a better future. But he was afraid to leave them behind.

“It was not an easy decision to make. My youngest is only one and a half years old. I have to stay strong, otherwise my family will suffer,” Pushpakumara said.

He is not the only tourism industry worker to leave Sri Lanka, which relies heavily on tourism revenue. Sanath Ukwatte, the former chairman of the Sri Lanka Hotel Association, said the industry had lost around 15,000 professionals.

“All you have to do is leave. We [hotel owners] are very worried, but we cannot force them to stay. We are facing a tough time right now,” he said. Most professionals in the tourism industry seek work in the Maldives, as well as in Dubai, Qatar or elsewhere in the Middle East.

‘I must stay strong’: Hardship for workers fleeing Sri Lanka’s shattered economy |  Sri Lanka
A woman waits to apply for a passport at the Sri Lanka Immigration and Emigration Department Photograph: Dinuka Liyawatte/Reuters

Sri Lankans seeking work abroad are mostly semi-skilled workers such as plumbers, drivers and mechanics. This year, the government has already sent 138,460 registered workers abroad compared to 122,321 last year. Many others left without being registered.

Manusha Nanayakkara, Minister of Labor and Overseas Employment, said Sri Lankans going abroad for work was a good thing as the country needed foreign remittances. He said stores and other small businesses were closing, leading to the loss of many jobs.

On June 20, the cabinet of ministers adopted a proposal to lower the legal age for women working as domestics abroad from 25 to 21, to encourage all migrant workers to register with the government.

However, leaving home is not always an easy decision. A video recently shared on social media is etched in Pushpakumara’s mind. “It was a video of a small child calling his dad as he left for work. I couldn’t watch the video until the end. I turned off my phone. I know I have to stay strong.


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