Sri Lankans jump ship as a bankrupt nation struggles
The snaking queues for food and fuel that crisscrossed Sri Lanka last year have given way to a different kind of line -- people scrambling for travel documents to flee their bankrupt island.
"What we see as normalcy is a mirage," customer care executive Gayan Jayewardena, 43, told AFP while queueing at a government office for a passport for his baby daughter.
"The situation is not getting better," said Jayewardena, whose wife and two older daughters already have their papers.
"When we consider it from the point of our children, it is better to leave. We want to migrate to a country like New Zealand."
The South Asian nation's 22 million people suffered desperate shortages of essentials in 2022 after the government ran out of dollars to finance imports, including life-saving medicines.
Months of protests led to the storming of then-president Gotabaya Rajapaksa's palace on July 9 last year.
His successor Ranil Wickremesinghe doubled taxes and cut subsidies, two highly unpopular moves.
The new government may have restored supplies, but at sometimes three times the previous price.
Wickremesinghe secured a $2.9 billion bailout from the International Monetary Fund in March and expects a recovery next year, but many in the country are not so optimistic.
Software engineer Maduranga, 38, who uses one name, said the high living costs and taxes prompted him to consider migrating to Australia.
"The cost is going high, every day it is going higher, but the salary amount is the same", Maduranga said. "Companies are not increasing the salaries, so that's why we are trying to leave."
At the foreign employment bureau, where Sri Lankans must register before taking up jobs abroad, numbers surged from 122,000 in 2021 to a record 311,000 last year.
For the first five months of this year, the bureau recorded around 122,000 people leaving -- the same as in all of 2021 -- but officials believe many others also left on tourist visas to seek work in the Middle East and elsewhere in Asia.
Last year, the number of people applying for passports more than doubled -- from over 382,500 in 2021, when the economy grew by 3.3 percent, to a record 911,689 passports in 2022, when the economy contracted 7.8 percent.
The trend has continued.
This year through May, 433,000 overseas travel documents have been issued, according to the Immigration and Emigration Department.