Safeguarding Economic Security: Sri Lanka’s Perspective on Migrant Workers

This article is aimed at analyzing the contribution of migrant workers to enhance economic security as a pillar of the national security of Sri Lanka.

Economy is the base of any country in the world that plays a vital role in shaping its development. It shapes societal well-being and serves as a crucial determinant of the nation’s overall strength. A strong economy works to retain and grow jobs and investment within a country (Clickner, 2012) which provides citizens with employment opportunities, and increased living standards. In addition to that, it benefits the government with higher tax revenues that increase the capacity of the government and the resources needed to provide public goods and services such as healthcare, social protection, education and other necessary services (Sen, 2021).

On the other hand, foreign employment has become a global trend where millions of people from native countries, especially from developing countries migrate to other countries for employment in every labour skill level. According to the latest international migrant workers report released by the International Labour Organization (ILO), in 2019, an estimated 169 million people are international migrant workers. These migrant workers cover up 4.9% of the global labour force whereas 99 million of the migrant workers are men and women migrant workers are calculated to be 70 million (ILO, 2021).

In the aspect of Sri Lanka, led by the ongoing economic crisis, a high trend of labour migration prevails where a significant number of Sri Lankans migrate to other countries in search of job opportunities. This has created both challenges and opportunities to Sri Lanka. Therefore, this article is aimed at analyzing the contribution of migrant workers to enhance economic security as a pillar of the national security of Sri Lanka.

Economic Background of Sri Lanka

As a nation with a long-lasting and rich culture, tradition and history, Sri Lanka owns an economy marked by various phases, challenges and opportunities. The ancient economy of Sri Lanka dwelled around agriculture where the country was called as the “granary of the east” for its agricultural richness. At present, Sri Lanka accounts for an overall economy of 77.1 billion USD (Central Bank of Sri Lanka, 2022) where the service, industry and agriculture sectors remain the largest contributing segments. As of 2022, the agriculture sector has contributed 906.5 billion Sri Lankan Rupees; the industry sector has contributed 3,309.8 billion Sri Lankan Rupees and the service sector has contributed 7,265.1 billion Sri Lankan Rupees, which is the highest that covers around 60% of the country’s total economy.

The current economic condition of Sri Lanka is not at its best as the phase has been continuously challenged by several factors including the Easter Sunday attack, Covid-19 pandemic, high public debts and the ongoing economic crisis. Currently, Sri Lanka is experiencing a critical economic condition where the increased inflation has resulted in increased prices of goods and services including essential commodities. In September 2022, the nation experienced a peak rate of 69.8% inflation whereas by the end of 2022, it remained at 57.2% (Ministry of Finance, Economic Stabilization and National Policies, 2022).

Labour migration of Sri Lankans

Annually, a significant number of Sri Lankans migrate to other countries in search of job opportunities. In 2022 alone, 311,056 (SLBFE, 2022) of Sri Lankans have migrated to other countries for employment purposes. Currently, around 1.5 million Sri Lankans are employed in jobs in other countries, out of which more than 50% of them are of either middle skilled or low skilled labour categories. According to the Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment (SLBFE), in 2022, Kuwait, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Oman, Maldives, South Korea, Romania, Jordan and Japan have been identified as the top 10 destination countries (Figure 01) of Sri Lankans for labour migration (SLBFE, 2022). 

A number of factors such as poverty, economic disparities, government’s encouragement of export labour (Meshelemia and Prasanga, 2017) combined with the current economic crisis are acting as the main push factors that lead Sri Lankans to migrate in search of job opportunities.

The labour market opportunities in the destination countries, the ability to earn more and send home remittances and the belief that the life will be better abroad (Meshelemia and Prasanga, 2017) are some of the main factors that encourage Sri Lankans to select particular countries as their preferred destinations.

Sri Lankan migrant workers in other countries significantly contribute to the growth of the country’s economy through remittances they send home. According to (CBSL, 2022) Sri Lanka has received the following amounts of money as foreign remittances between 2018 – 2022 (Figure 02). Adhering to the figure, it shows that there is a significant drop-down of remittances received in 2021 and 2022 compared to the previous years.


Even though migration seems like a dream coming true for many people, the reality is not always a novel phenomenon. It is true that working abroad provide people with several advantages including high salaries, the ability to send home remittances, ability to gain new skills and experiences, experience other cultures and expand career opportunities (Immigration Advice Service UK, 2022) but it is also a journey full of challenges and difficulties. Human rights violations including harassment, abuse at the workplace and breach of labour rights (Institute of Policy Studies, 2014) combined with a number of other challenges such as lack of decent work, low language proficiency, forced labour, exposure to health issues, debt bondage and other forms of exploitation (UN Network on Migration in Sri Lanka, 2020) remain the main challenges faced by Sri Lankan migrant workers. Labour skill levels of Sri Lankan migrant workers have a direct impact on this and low and middle-skilled level migrant have been identified as the most vulnerable groups to be subjected to these challenges (Institute of Policy Studies, 2014).

In addition to that, the COVID 19 pandemic during 2020 can be mentioned as a global issue that significantly challenged the lifestyles of Sri Lankan migrant workers. A significant number of workers lost their jobs or have not received their wages which resulted in an economic downturn. As of June 2020, 10,355 migrants have been repatriated to Sri Lankan and the remittance inflows reduced by 23.3% significantly affecting the beneficiaries of remittances and the Sri Lankan economy as a whole (UN Network on Migration in Sri Lanka).

Steps taken

As a responsible state, Sri Lanka has taken a number of steps to ensure the protection and well-being of Sri Lankan migrant workers. The latest National Policy and Action Plan 2023 – 2027 on Migration for Employment released by the Ministry of Labour and Foreign Employment has introduced four core policy areas focusing on the individual migrant workers as well as family members of the migrant workers. It aims to promote decent and productive employment, secure rights and protection of migrant workers and ensure the well-being of their families, promote employment opportunities for skilled and semi-skilled migrant workers and enhance the benefits of migration and its nexus with nation development.

Accordingly, it plans to strengthen the legal, regulatory and institutional framework; promote policy linkages, institutional coherence and multi-sectoral coordination; capacity development of key stakeholders and to strengthen structures and systems to ensure professionalization of the recruitment sector to achieve its first policy area of promoting decent and productive employment.

Moreover, it aims to secure rights and protection of migrant workers and ensure well-being of their families through strengthened and well-planned, coordinated, efficient and gender responsive services; strengthening grievance handling and dispute resolutions for the protection and security of migrant workers; establishing social security systems in collaboration with host countries and educating and empowering migrant workers (Ministry of Labour and Foreign Employment, 2023).

Steps already taken by Sri Lanka towards ensuring the safety and rights of the migrant workers include ratification of the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families in 1996, the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1993 and the UN Trafficking Protocol in 2015 (International Organization for Migration); Not granting job approvals by the SLBFE for the countries where no Sri Lanka Missions are operated; Providing services such as linking migration and development, training and skill development: Conducting mandatory pre-departure training program for migrant domestic workers in a step in the right direction; Increasing the minimum age limit of women migrating for domestic work; Upgrading the training given to women and making the background report compulsory for migration (Ranasinghe, 2020 and Liyanaarachchi and Wijenayake, 2021) and so on.


Economic stability as an economic security factor remains a crucial factor that shape the national security of a nation. A Strong Economy is always the foundation of a strong country (The Government of Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, 2021). If the economy is declining, it leads to people’s suffering, social unrest and political instability and even lowers the strength of the country’s security. In the same way, if the economy is strong, all the other aspects of the country become strong, including the national security of the country.

The ‘developing’ economic status of Sri Lanka combined with the ongoing economic crisis and various other variables such as poverty, economic disparities and the government’s encouragement of export labour has led a significant number of Sri Lankans to migrate to wealthy nations in search of better job opportunities. Though migration of labour is a path filled with numerous challenges for the migrants, in contrast, it is one of the main income generators to the nation’s economy. The sourness of the reality appears here when a significant of these migrant workers having to go through bitter experiences and difficulties for the sake of earning money. Considering the significant contribution of these people to the economic development of the country, it is vital for Sri Lanka to ensure the protection of these people through already implemented mechanisms as well as through implementing recommended mechanisms.


It is very important to address the push factors including poverty and economic crisis that increase the economic vulnerabilities of people and lead them to migrate for employment, especially those who are from rural and uneducated. Encouraging entrepreneurship and supporting small-scale entrepreneurs to increase their economic positions are some of the steps that can be followed.

It has been continuously mentioned that Sri Lankan migrant workers from middle and low-skilled labour levels are the most vulnerable to be victims of challenges which were mentioned previously. Hence, it is highly recommended to increase skilled labour migration and conduct further pre-departure training.

As same as addressing the country-level factors that lead Sri Lankans to migrate, it is equally important to focus on their protection once they leave Sri Lanka for the destination countries. There should be a proper legal mechanism easily accessible to any migrant victim. In addition to that, it is recommended to increase awareness among migrant workers on challenges and the coordination and collaboration with other entities to ensure the protection of the Sri Lankan migrant workers.

Thamindu Devinda
Thamindu Devinda
Thamindu Devinda has recently graduated with a Bachelor’s degree (BSc) in International Relations from Girne American University, Cyprus in collaboration with the Metropolitan College, Sri Lanka. In addition to that, he holds a diploma in International Relations from the Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies. Furthermore, his interest in learning languages has opened his path towards learning languages such as French and Chinese. He has previously worked as a Research Intern at the Institute of National Security Studies, a think tank established under the Ministry of Defence, Sri Lanka. He currently works as a Research Assistant in collaboration with the Medical Faculty of the Kelaniya University of Sri Lanka. His areas of interest include world politics, the concept of power, human rights, economic development, geopolitics and so on.