Photos: Crisis-stricken Sri Lankans seek passport to a better life


RMR Lenora queued for two days in front of the headquarters of Sri Lanka’s Immigration and Emigration Department for two days last week, hoping to obtain a passport and with it a chance to leave a country wilting under an economic crisis.

Lenora, 33, a garment worker, decided to apply as a maid in Kuwait after her husband was fired from a small restaurant where he worked as a cook.

“My husband has lost his job because there is no cooking gas and food costs have skyrocketed. It is very difficult to find work and salaries are very low,” said Lenora, who said she earns about 2,500 Sri Lankan rupees ($6.80) a day. “With two children, that is impossible.”

So last week, with a change of clothes and an umbrella to ward off the scorching sun, Lenora boarded a train from the town of Nuwara Eliya, in the central hills of Sri Lanka, and traveled 170 km (105 miles) to the commercial capital, Colombo, to hand in her papers for her first passport.

In line, Lenora was joined by workers, shopkeepers, farmers, government officials and housewives, some of whom camped overnight, all looking to escape Sri Lanka’s worst financial crisis in seven decades.

In the first five months of 2022, according to government data, Sri Lanka issued 288,645 passports, compared to 91,331 in the same period last year.

The island nation of about 22 million people is short of food, cooking gas, fuel and medicines after economic mismanagement and the COVID-19 pandemic wiped out its foreign exchange reserves. Currency depreciation, inflation over 33 percent and concerns about prolonged political and economic uncertainty are forcing many to migrate.

The government is keen to support more people looking to work abroad to boost remittances, which have halved in recent months, according to central bank data.

Inside the Immigration and Emigration Department, where people spend hours packing counters to have their photos and fingerprints taken, a senior official said the 160 staff members were exhausted to meet the demand for passports.

The department has tightened security, expanded working hours and tripled the number of passports it issues, but at least 3,000 people deliver forms every day, said HP Chandralal, who oversees the authorization of most applications.

The online application system has been lagging for months and many new applicants are unable to get the necessary appointments.

“It’s very difficult to deal with the people because they are frustrated and don’t understand that the system is not equipped to handle these kinds of demands,” Chandralal said. “So they get mad and blame us, but there’s nothing we can do.”

The urgency for many people looking to leave was recently heightened by a warning from Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe that a food crisis is only months away.

The United Nations says Sri Lanka is at risk of a full-blown humanitarian emergency and has launched a plan to provide $47.2 million to 1.7 million of the country’s most vulnerable people.

In an effort to resolve the crisis, Sri Lanka is in talks with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a rescue package after it suspended repayment of about $12 billion in external debt in April.

The government estimates that it will need at least $5 billion for the rest of the year to meet essential imports.

Lenora is determined to do what she can for a better life for her and her children.

“I want to spend two years in Kuwait and then I’m sure I can earn and save enough to come back,” she said. “I want to raise my daughters. That is the most important.”

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