A. Executive Summary
Sri Lanka is a South Asian island, located in the Indian Ocean, and has a maritime boundary with India and the Maldives. Sri Jayawardenepura Kotte serves as the country’s legislative capital, while Colombo is the country’s main metropolis and financial centre.
In 2019, GDP grew at a rate of around 2.7% thanks in particular to tourism – mainly from India, China and the European Union (EU) – and to the tertiary sector. The industrial sector, producing almost 30% of GDP, is strongly linked to clothing, textiles and leather goods manufacturing. The agricultural sector (less than 10% of GDP) remains the least developed, partly due to the recurring threat of flooding.
Sri Lanka is a semi-presidential republic. It has one of the largest and most technologically advanced armies in South Asia, with the highest military expenditures in the region. This stems from the need to maintain the commitment of the armed forces against the persistent threat posed by the Tamil Tiger militant group and by terrorism. In April 2019, the country was hit by a series of terrorist attacks against Christians, that took place in the capital Colombo and other cities, resulting in 290 deaths.
Sri Lanka provided its military troops for several missions abroad: for MINUSMA (Mali); for UNMISS (South Sudan); for UNIFIL (Lebanon); for MINUSCA (Central African Republic) and for MINURSO, the latter serving two experts on the mission without any troops.
In Sri Lanka, the international migrant stock at mid-year 2020 counted 40,254 people (around 0.2% of the entire population), of whom 47,3% were female. According to the UN, the total number of emigrants at mid-year 2020 was 1,960,025 thus making it not only a labour-receiving, but also an important labour-sending country.
According to the UN International Migrants Stock, in 2020 the total estimated number of refugees was 1,406 persons. As population of concern to UNHCR, by the end of 2020 there were 225 asylum seekers, mostly males aged between 18 and 59. Concerning refugees, by the same time they were 1,013, most of them men (620 in total), while the rest were female (393), mostly aged between 18 and 59 (220 female refugees).
The government identified 20 victims of human trafficking in 2020, all female forced into labour trafficking. The two main groups of forced migrants in Sri Lanka were made up of climate displaced people and voluntary refugee returnees. In 2020, there were 19,999 new displacements in Sri Lanka caused by weather related events, particularly floods and tropical cyclones. The second forced migrants group included refugee returnees, who came back after fleeing the war. They were 25,936 in 2020. These refugees are particularly vulnerable and face the lack of basic needs such as food, water and hygiene.
B. Country Profile
I. Basic Information
Sri Lanka is a tropical climate country, with a rather warm temperature during the whole year, except for a couple of months when it is affected by monsoons. Monsoons bring heavy rains and strong winds that can often result in floods, causing Internal Displaced People (IDPs) and casualties.
The current population of Sri Lanka is 21.7 million people, and more than four-fifths of them live in rural areas. The most densely populated districts are Colombo, Gampaha, and Kurunegal, containing almost half of the Sri Lankan population. The country is ethnically divided between the Sinhalese majority and the Tamil minority, and the religious distribution practically coincides with these two groups. Although there is no perfect correspondence between religion and ethnicity, about 70-75% are Buddhist and ethnic Sinhalese, while just over 9% are Muslim and Moro-Cingalese. 6.2% are Roman Catholic. The Tamil ethnic community, of both Sinhalese and Indian origin, exceeds 15%. While the Sinhalese Tamils are mainly concentrated in the northern and eastern areas of the country, the Indians are rooted in the central-southern district of Nuwara Eliya.
Even though in 2019 the Sri Lankan GDP grew at a rate of around 2.7%, the country still experienced high levels of poverty. According to the World Bank, the poverty rate in Sri Lanka is 4.1%. One of the poorest districts appears to be the Kilinochchi District, situated in the northern part of the island; there, poor-quality water and unhygienic conditions are a daily concern for most residents.
A legacy of the colonial period is the conflict between the Sinhalese majority and the Tamil minority, which still in minor ways affects the country’s domestic politics and security. At the end of 2018, the shadows of inter-ethnic violence and the rise of Sinhalese nationalism re-emerged.
II. International and Internal Migrants
In Sri Lanka, the international migrant stock at mid-year 2020 counted 40,254 people, representing around 0.2% of the entire population and, according to UN data, 19,058 of them were female (47,3% of the international migrant stock). Most migrants were aged between 15 and 19 years old (precisely 4,275 persons); the second largest group was between 20 and 24 years old (4,224), while a minority were aged between 65 and 69 years old (912). Most men were aged between 20 and 24 years old (2,249) and the minority of them were aged between 65 and 69 years old (428). Most women were aged between 15 and 19 years old (2,095) and the minority of them were aged between 65 and 69 years old (484).
Most migrants come from Asian countries, especially India and Malaysia. The second largest group comes from Europe. Migration seems to be crucial for the island’s development. In 2020, Sri Lanka was a labour-receiving country, especially from India and China, and these migrants came in to work on large-scale infrastructure programs, including new highways, ports and airports. Many of them lived in Colombo or close to their working place. The island’s population mobility is expected to rise as a result of such development.
Indians or Malaysians migrated to Sri Lanka two centuries ago to work in tea plantations and, as of today, many of them are still employed in the same field. Chinese migrants come to Sri Lanka to work in a different sector, particularly in infrastructure projects such as the Colombo Port City. They are both skilled and less skilled workers brought to Sri Lanka from China by their construction firms. The Hambantota port is another example that has seen a major Chinese working force during its implementation.
III. Emigration and Skilled Migration
According to the UN International Migrant Stock, the total number of emigrants at mid-year 2020 was 1,960,025. Among those, 831,788 were females, meaning 42,4% of the international migrant stock. Sri Lanka, therefore, is not only a labour-receiving country, but also an important labour-sending country, with around 2 million of its citizens living and working abroad.
In 2019, Kuwait was the main destination for Sri Lankans (43,089 emigrants), while 40,785 of them went to Qatar, 35,478 moved to Saudi Arabia, and 32,866 went to the United Arab Emirates. 9,024 people went to Oman, and also the Maldives seem to be among the most favourite destination countries, as well as South Korea and Australia.
The vast majority of those who left Sri Lanka for skilled jobs are young adult males aged between 35 and 39. Another large group includes females, departing for housemaid jobs, most of them aged above 49. The third large group is made up of people employed in unskilled jobs, and most of them are male, aged between 25 and 29 years old.
IV. Forced Migrants (internally displaced, asylum seekers and refugees, climate displaced people)
According to the UN International Migrants Stock, in 2020 the total estimated number of refugees was 1,406 people. As a population of concern to UNHCR, by the end of 2020 there were 1,013 refugees, most of them male (620 in total), while women were only 393, of whom a minority was aged 60+ (10 females) and the majority between 18 and 59 (220 female refugees). Concerning the refugee male population, the minority was aged 60+ (9 males), while the majority was aged between 18 and 59 (428). Also a consistent part of them was aged between 0 and 17 years old (183 male refugees).
According to the UNHCR, by the end of 2020 there were 225 asylum seekers, 87 females and 138 males. Most female asylum seekers were aged between 18 and 59 (51 females), and the minority between 0 and 4 (10 females). A consistent part (36 females) were aged between 0 and 17; but there were no female asylum seekers aged 60+. The majority of male asylum seekers were aged between 18 and 59 (116 males), while the minority were aged between 5 and 11 years old (5). 6 males were aged between 0 and 4.
In 2020, most refugees came from Pakistan (977) and Afghanistan (166); some of them arrived from Myanmar (35), Iran (32), Yemen (16), Palestina (10) and Nigeria (5). 21 came from other countries.
In Sri Lanka there are two main groups of forced migrants. The first one includes climate displaced people, and this is a widely spread phenomenon in Sri Lanka due to its severe weather conditions. In 2018, thousands of people were displaced in Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, because of frequent monsoons. In Southern Asia, the majority of the displaced persons as a result of sudden-onset hazards are found in India, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh. In 2020, there were 19,999 new displacements in Sri Lanka caused by weather related events. In September 2020, a flood in Gampaha, Wattala, Mahara and Kelaniya generated 1,200 IDPs. In November 2020, the Burevi tropical cyclone invaded Sri Lanka causing 15,000 IDPs. Floods in the northern province occurred in December 2020 producing another 670 IDPs. Another geographical event in October 2020 caused 56 new IDPs.
The second forced migrant group in Sri Lanka is made up of refugee returnees. The end of the civil war resulted in the repatriation of Sri Lankan refugees, who are now voluntarily returning, particularly from India (Tamil Nadu), but also from other countries. In 2020, the refugee returnees were 25,936. They are particularly vulnerable, lacking the most basic needs such as food, water and hygiene. They make the largest number of refugees in the country.
According to UNHCR, all refugees under its concern stay in private, individual accommodation (1,013 people). Usually, returnees entering Sri Lanka are directed to the Trincomalee District, in the northeast, or Jaffna, Kilinochchi, Mannar, Mullaitivu and Vavuniya Districts, as well as Gampaha, Colombo and Kalutara in the South, where the UNHCR bases are located. A request has been made to the government of India to build a home project for refugees returning from Tamil Nadu and internally displaced individuals in the Sri Lankan Northern and Eastern Provinces.
Forced migrants face several problems. Not only do some of them lack food, clean water and shelters, but the majority has issues with education. UNHCR and other organisations provide some type of formation programmes. As of today, 140 young refugees are taking advantage of the primary education provided, and 36 teenagers are attending English language classes.
V. Victims of Human Trafficking
In 2020, the government identified 20 victims, but the potential victims were 56. These 20 victims were all female, all exploited in forced labour. No female victims were identified by the authorities for sex trafficking, even though the practice is believed to have occurred. Due to misunderstanding, some local authorities mistook sex trafficking victims for persons having illegal conducts. Officials may also have arrested or detained sex trafficking victims without sufficient screening. In Sri Lanka traffickers exploit not only women, but also men and children are involved in both sex and labour trafficking. It is estimated that several Sri Lankan hotels provide their tourists guests from Germany, Russia, China and India, with children, male and female persons for commercial sex.
Victims of human trafficking are often Asian people, mostly from Sri Lanka or Nepal. Sri Lankan victims are both exploited within their country but also abroad, in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Japan and South Korea. The majority of these victims come from Ampara, Batticaloa and Nuwara Eliya.
Victims of human trafficking face several problems. Most of the time their wages are not paid and their documents are retained. They very often face the problem of contract fraud. Very rarely they manage to go to trial, but often do not have the money to take part in the law enforcement process.
Victims of human trafficking have access to some activities provided by the govenerment and other NGOs and international organisations. The Sri Lankan Bureau of Foreign Employment (SLBFE) runs a transit shelter near the capital’s airport where victims can rest. To promote awareness of human trafficking, the government also set up radio and television ads. A hotline has been established by an organisation, available 24/7, together with the National Child Protection Authority (NCPA). This Child Line can be used by children who have been abused, are abandoned or in need of any type of emotional support.
VI. National Legal Framework
In the absence of a national asylum framework, asylum-seekers and refugees are treated as irregular immigrants and may be subjected to arrest, detention, and deportation under the 1948 Immigrants and Emigrants Act No. 20. The penal code was enacted in 1883 and amended twice, in 1993 and 2006. Section 360(C) criminalises sex and labour trafficking, providing fines and several years of jail, at least no less than two years for such crimes. The 1956 Employment of Women, Young Persons and Children Act No. 47 was very recently amended, in January 2021. The new amended act provides an increase of the minimum age of employment, going from 14 years old to 16. It also stresses that a young person aged between 14 and 16 may be working, but under a number of specific conditions. Being employed in hazardous jobs is prohibited by this new amendment.
Concerning international conventions, Sri Lanka has not ratified the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees nor its 1967 Protocol. Furthermore, Sri Lanka has not ratified the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons, nor the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness.
VII. Main Actors
The Sri Lankan Department of Immigration and Emigration regulates the entry and exit of persons. It also provides any type of citizenship services such as visas, passports etc., and has the power to remove undesirable persons who are not Sri Lankan citizens.
The Ministry of Health works to provide assistance to migrants. The local government has recently made significant progress on its National Migration Health Policy operation. The Ministry of Health is in charge of this process, but IOM supports it by providing technical assistance. Sri Lanka is one of the few nations with a comprehensive National Migration Health Policy and Action Plan, which was first implemented in 2013.
The Department of Labour also works in the migration field. It launched an official YouTube channel to raise awareness of the labour law and added several videos on the hazardous forms of child labour to better explain the amended Employment of Women, Young Persons and Children Act No. 47 of 1956.
The Sri Lankan Bureau of Foreign Employment (SLBFE) works to create fair paths for individuals in the international employment market. It offers pre-departures training and helps individuals decide on foreing employment. SLBFE runs a transit shelter near the capital’s airport where victims can rest. It also administratively deals with some migrant labour issues. It developed an online mechanism for filing complaints and reacting to them that is much used by the victims of human trafficking.
IOM is present in Sri Lanka and provides support to migrants. It works with governmental institutions to respond to the needs of the population, generated by humanitarian emergencies within the country. It also helps repatriate Sri Lankan workers, especially those affected by COVID-19.
UNHCR operates in Sri Lanka and works together with the government to provide protection and help to refugees. The organisation assists Sri Lankan voluntary return refugees and provides both asylum-seekers and refugees with a certificate that is renewed every three months for asylum seekers, monthly for refugees.
NGOs and Other organisations
The Helvetas organisation is one of the over two hundred NGOs operating in Sri Lanka. It is founded on three pillars: prevention, protection and prosecution, and provides legal advice to human trafficking victims.
ZOA is another NGO operating in Sri Lanka. In 2020, it helped improve or learn English to over 200 adult refugees and offered ICT training to almost 50 others.
Hithawathi is an organisation that has implemented the Child Hotline, available 24/7, and operates together with the National Child Protection Authority (NCPA). This Child Line can be used by children who have been abused, abandoned and overall in need of emotional support.
The Catholic Church
The Sri Lankan Catholic Bishops’ Conference is the episcopal conference that regulates the Catholic Church in all affairs. In Sri Lanka, the conference is a legal entity. The Diocese of Badulla helps provide face masks, hand sanitizers and medical equipment to hospitals in need during COVID-19 pandemic.
The Pope John XXIII Community Association has been present in Sri Lanka since 2005. The mission is located 100 km away from Colombo, in Ratnapura. The missionaries provide food, school projects and entertaining activities for disabled or poor children.
Talitha Kum – UISG is present in Sri Lanka with a national network. It was founded in 2009 and promotes gender equality and human dignity of the poor.
Salesians operate in Sri Lanka with nearly 20 locations, from the very north in Jaffna to the very south in Hungama. The religious order provides online classes, technical centres aiming at educating poor children and others.
Caritas Sri Lanka-SEDEC is the social arm of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Sri Lanka, and is a member of Caritas Internationalis. The Archdiocese of Colombo houses Caritas Sri Lanka’s national centre, mostly teaching young adults how social media can positively be used and affect their lives.
Figlie di Maria Ausiliatrice (FMA) are also present in Sri Lanka, in Negombo and in Nochchiyagama Iglie. Some of them are teachers and other social assistants, closely working with the salesians and especially providing houses for young girls.
The Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) has been active in Sri Lanka for over 30 years, but left the country in 2017. JRS entered the island in the eighties to serve people displaced by civil war and natural catastrophes. This agency provided emergency aid relief and protection for human rights. Also it reached out to Sri Lankan people living abroad, by accompanying Sri Lankan refugees in Tamil Nadu camps (southern India) and offering them education, entertaining activities, pastoral, and psychosocial help. JRS handed their work over to the Sri Lanka Province.
The Knights of Columbus, a US based Catholic organisation, do not directly operate in Sri Lanka. Nevertheless, they donated $100,000 in 2019 to rebuild the Christian community that was destroyed after a terrorist attack. The Knights of Columbus stand in solidarity with Christians in Sri Lanka.