Sri Lankans in UAE speak of keeping the lights on back home amid crisis

More than 150,000 have headed overseas, mainly to the GCC, this year alone after economic collapse that forced removal of Gotabaya Rajapaksa as president

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Sri Lankans in the UAE have told of helping desperate families in their crisis-hit country.

Tens of thousands have left Sri Lanka so far this year alone to work overseas, figures released by the government show.

The majority have moved to Gulf Co-operation Council nations to secure jobs.

More than 150,000 have left the country since January, the Sri Lankan Bureau of Foreign Employment said.

The island nation plunged into crisis last year as its foreign exchange reserves ran out and food and energy prices surged. Mass protests led to the removal of president Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

Sudeesha Sandeepani arrived in Dubai last month with one thing in mind, to help pay for her family's food, water and electricity back home in Kurunegala, north-western Sri Lanka.

The 24-year-old found a job as a cashier at a Dubai restaurant and hopes to save and send regular sums home.

I want to earn so I can get a regular supply of electricity and water for my family
Sudeesha Sandeepani from Sri Lanka

“My family is poor so I came to the UAE looking for a job,” the former teaching assistant told The National.

“Our house does not have electricity. I want to earn so I can get a regular supply of electricity and water for my family.”

The employment bureau said more than 311,000 left the country last year and it anticipates similar numbers to depart this year, typically finding employment in Gulf countries.

The surge includes professionals, such as bankers and doctors.

The middle class is now increasingly part of the migration that in the past largely comprised housemaids, semi-skilled and unskilled workers seeking employment overseas.

Inflation stood at an average of 46.4 per cent last year, hitting hard the poor and vulnerable.

Ms Sandeepani hopes to eventually save enough money for a larger home for her younger brother and sister, who now live with relatives.

“My home now is small. I want to build a bigger home for my family,” she said.

“I will first start with sending home money every month.”

A former Sri Lankan government official has found work in a Dubai manufacturing factory after arriving in the country a few months ago.

“I need to help my family as we have financial issues,” said the 26-year-old who gave her name as Shehara.

“I must send money home to my parents for their daily consumption of food and for medicines.

“I work in reception and administration but I can do accounts-related jobs. I need to work harder so I can save enough and help by family.”

'Everyone is struggling'

Doctors who never contemplated leaving their home country have also moved to the Gulf, including one from Colombo who has been looking for a job in the UAE for the last two months.

“I’m still on the lookout for a good job,” said a general physician, who has worked in Sri Lanka for several years. She spoke to The National on condition of anonymity.

"I didn’t have plans to migrate but after the crisis I thought we should have a plan for my daughter’s future.

“Everyone is struggling at home.

“The health care sector is rapidly developing in the UAE so I decided to come to Dubai.”

Citizens in Sri Lanka have access to free medical treatment and education.

But the country’s universal health care system was affected last year with operations cancelled because of power failures and a critical shortage of essential medical supplies.

Soaring electricity and fuel tariffs have made it difficult for parents to send their children to school.

Need of the hour

Sri Lankan government figures show the migration pattern to the GCC.

More than 50,000 left the country last year to work in Saudi Arabia, employment bureau numbers show.

Another 79,123 workers left for Kuwait, 71,953 moved to Qatar and 35,563 came to the UAE. Oman received 10,669 and 3,370 went to Bahrain.

Ishtiaq Raziq, a banker who came to the UAE in 2008, said the region attracts people because of employment opportunities and the tax-free status.

“There has been an acceleration because of the crisis,” he said.

“There are bankers in the financial sector, IT professionals, construction surveyors coming here."

He said that people are unable to save money with the worsened cost of living crisis in Sri Lanka.

“They want to save for their children’s education and to take care of loved ones at home," he said.

Remittances from Sri Lankans overseas and a cash infusion from tourists returning to the country are expected to prop up the economy.

The government has said $480 million in remittance was received in May out of a total of $2.3 billion received so far this year from overseas workers.

Authorities hope more than $500m will be sent each month this year to reach the level of $5 billion a year before the pandemic.

“The GCC has always been an attractive place because it’s a hub for business between Europe and Asia Pacific,” Mr Raziq said.

“It is also only four and a half hours away from home in case of any family emergency.

“The newcomers will contribute to sending remittances home and that is what is the need of the hour.”

The unprecedented economic crisis has led to severe shortages of food, medicine, fuel and electricity.

The IMF approved a $3 billion bailout in March to help the nation of 22 million people restructure its debt.

Updated: July 17, 2023, 8:40 AM