As is the case in many countries of origin in South and South-West Asia, out-migration in Sri Lanka is driven by low per capita income, unemployment and/or underemployment, high inflation, indebtedness and lack of access to resources. The number of Sri Lankans employed overseas increased significantly following the decision taken at the Fifth Conference of Heads of State or Government of Non-Aligned Countries held in Sri Lanka in 1976 to make more employment opportunities available in Western Asia to Asian countries with labour surpluses.3 This decision was further strengthened by the subsequent liberalization of economic policies in the country in 1977. Additionally, the implementation of welfare packages for Sri Lankan employees abroad and their family members and compulsory registration has decreased irregular labour migration over time (Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment 2009).

Sri Lanka has seen a tenfold increase in migrant numbers in the last two decades, and current estimates suggest that about 1.7 million migrants work abroad, with an annual outflow of about 200,000 persons.

The factors behind migration from Sri Lanka can be broadly categorized as follows (IOM and IPS 2008):

  • for settlement—mostly the skilled personnel;
  • for economic reasons (for work)—skilled, semi-skilled and low-skilled personnel;
  • for political reasons—mainly as refugees or asylum seekers;
  • for educational purposes—mainly for undergraduate and postgraduate studies;

In 2009, about 667 Sri Lankans migrated overseas daily in search of jobs. GCC countries and other countries in Western Asian were the major destinations, accounting for 94 per cent of the migrant workers, with 84 per cent of them moving to Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates and Jordan. Notably, the 2008 global financial crisis led to only a small decrease in total departures for foreign employment (table 1).

Traditionally, women in Sri Lanka have migrated in greater numbers than men. However, the relative share of women migrant workers from the country has decreased over time due to increased male migration, while the number of women migrating has remained relatively stable. In the late 1990s, more than 70 per cent of the migrants were women. This figure decreased to 51.2 per cent in 2009 (figure 1).

A predominate number of women migrants, 89 per cent, were employed as domestic helpers in 2009. This percentage has continued to remain high despite efforts to reduce the share of domestic helpers among migrating women. Of note, the number of female migrants, as a whole, dropped in 2006, but has picked up again since 2007, mainly due to an increase in the number of women employed as domestic helpers. Outflows to some destination countries are largely dominated by female domestic workers. In 2009, of the total number of Sri Lankan migrants in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, 74 per cent and 55 per cent of them were women working as female domestic helpers, respectively. The high number of women domestic workers migrating to Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, where protection of domestic workers is limited, is an area of concern (figure 2).

Overall, labour migration trends show that the majority of the migrants tend to be semi-skilled and low-skilled workers. The skill level of male migrants since 2002 has been fairly balanced, with the largest portion being skilled workers. Up until that time, the predominate number of male labour migrants were low-skilled workers. Based on this, it appears that the Government’s efforts to promote the migration of skilled workers have made inroads with regards to men, but not with women. This can be attributed to the fact that women migrants from Sri Lanka move to Western Asian countries primarily as domestic workers, which comprised about 89 per cent of all women migration in 2009 (Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment 2009).

Foreign employment has generated substantial remittance inflows and relieved local unemployment pressures as well as provided employment opportunities, especially for women. In 2009, Sri Lanka received Rs383 billion ($3.5 billion) in remittances, accounting for about 47 per cent of the total foreign exchange earnings of the country. Despite the effects of the 2008 global financial crisis on overseas employment opportunities, remittances from migrants working abroad is the largest source of foreign exchange for the Sri Lankan economy. Of the total amount of remittances in 2009, Rs. 230 billion ($2.1 billion), or 59.9 per cent, were sent by Sri Lankan migrant workers in Western Asia (Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment 2009).

The Government of Sri Lanka continues to take measures to prevent the exploitation of migrant workers. The newly created Sri Lankan Ministry of
Foreign Employment Promotion and Welfare has released the National Policy on Labour Migration in order to ensure the protection of migrants’ rights (Fernando and Vijita 2009). The Sri Lankan Bureau of Foreign Employment, established in 1985, originally functioned under the Ministry of Labour and is now under the Ministry of Foreign Employment Promotion and Welfare. Its mandate is to ensure the promotion, development and regularization of the industry and to provide protection to Sri Lankan migrants overseas and their families. In 2009, it conducted raids on 182 illegal recruiting agencies and paid about Rs. 254 billion ($2.3 billion) in insurance payments to migrant workers. In the same year, the Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment provided 103 pre-departure loans to outgoing migrants, and seven self-employment loans (Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment 2009).

The growth in foreign labour migration has not come without its challenges. Like many of its neighbouring countries, Sri Lanka continues to encourage workers to migrate. Only limited progress has been made in promoting overseas migration to skilled workers. Another challenge is centred on protecting the migrants. The number of complaints received by Sri Lanka from overseas labour migrants in 2009 amounted to about 4.9 per cent of total foreign employment recruitment, an increase of 2,402 complaints from the previous year. Moreover, the number of deaths of overseas migrants in 2009 was 333, representing an increase of 4.9 per cent from 2008 (Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment 2009).

In addition to migration for overseas employment, there is also significant cross-border movement in the form of international student mobility. Better employment and opportunities to obtain residency has resulted in a growing trend among Sri Lankan students to choose developed countries for educational purposes. This often leads to permanent settlement in these countries. Sri Lanka has the highest rate of out-migration among its population with a tertiary education in the subregion. Data from World Bank (2010) indicated that 28.2 per cent of the tertiary-educated population in 2000 emigrated.

Data from various agencies issuing the student visas indicate that in addition to international student migration to OECD countries, there has been a relatively significant increase in the number of Sri Lankan students seeking educational opportunities in other South Asian countries, primarily Bangladesh, India and Pakistan. The rapid internationalization of higher education poses new challenges for policymakers. Strengthening higher education institutions and training would help minimize the adverse effects of student migration, and address concerns of a ‘brain drain’ (IOM and IPS 2008).

Due to the long-lasting conflict, many Sri Lankans, especially ethnic Tamils, left the country seeking asylum. According to data from United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), more than 140,000 Sri Lankans are living as refugees abroad. The main host country is India, where about half of the refugees from Sri Lanka reside. Other important destinations are France, Canada, Germany and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (UNHCR no date).

However, with the end of the 30-year internal conflict in May 2009, the number of refugees and asylum seekers are expected to drop considerably. The civil war displaced more than 300,000 people but by May 2010, about 215,000 had been released and resettled across Sri Lanka (ADB 2010).


3 Participants at the Conference were members of non-alignment movement, a group of States that consider themselves not aligned formally with or against any major power bloc.