Why do successful Sri Lankans migrate?

December dinner parties are a time for meeting recent migrants. On their first “homeland” visits after “settling” in a new first world. This year I began to notice a different type of migrant at these events. They scare me. More I think about who they are and what they left behind, the fear tightens.

They left for a LOWER quality of life. In Sri Lanka they already had things “normal” migrants hope their kids will one day achieve. It is the ultimate contradiction of migration motives. So why did they leave? I feel I should not have tried to answer that question.

Consider what they left behind. Jumping off the upper rungs of corporate and professional ladders to start at the bottom in a new country. Or abandoning local careers cultivated with years of diligent focus. They left behind large houses with servants for cramped apartments. Pulled the kids out of “good” Colombo schools. Swapped chauffeured cars for battered Fords or crowded subways.

The group is diverse – even from the small sampling I met. Yet they have distinct features. Both husband and wife have degrees. They are at the upper level of their technical expertise. A promotion away from crossing into executive management. Staying would have meant more money, a bigger house, flashier cars, and fancier holidays. The standards by which we measure success these days (secretly or not).

Most managed large projects in their fields. One guy’s overseas work allowed him a life right out of posh lifestyle magazines. The wives worked for multi nationals, got paid in hard currency, ran successful businesses. One IT guy told me how the family used to spend frequent weekends at 5 star resorts. Now he’s a humble contractor somewhere cold and grey. Making deliveries between projects to pay the bills.

They knew what they were getting into. It took planning. Scoping visits to see the prospects at the destination. Evaluating the personal and financial costs. One guy had the grim details worked out on a spread sheet. Electricity. Groceries. Fuel. Mortgages. Schools (good private ones). Taxes and possible income. They would, at least at first, make quite a bit less. Live constrained lives. Yet they left.

It was not for a few money making years in Dubai. It meant new passports. The sale of properties (the clearest sign of a major life shift in Sri Lanka). All this inflates the WHY question.

To which their answers are evasive. Something about “educating the kids” and the “long term”. The word “prospects” got used often alongside other vaguenesses. I feel awkward to press people who are only friends of friends. They don’t know me enough to trust me with the truth.

So I had to sniff for clues elsewhere. A closer look at their backgrounds is a good start. There is a narrow spectrum in my “sample”. Parents who were mid level government servants, lawyers, general practitioners. A mother who was a teacher. Not the kind of people with the type of essential contacts you need in a feudal society like ours.

Those who survived local universities did so unstained by the politics and with first class degrees. Others qualified through company training programs and part time professional courses. Their big breaks were getting in the door of large companies. They used their technical expertise with well developed people skills. A combination that powered a rare entrepreneurial drive. Which got things done amidst the usual insanity of Sri Lankan complications.

It added up to success in the snake pit of Sri Lankan corporate life. Despite not going to the right Colombo schools or belonging to a minority. No one cared as long as the balance sheet was good.

What they lacked are political connections. They preferred to live by their abilities and the rewards of their achievements. Far better than anything gained by selling one’s loyalty to a big man for a meagre government job. There is always a point where someone with the right skills had to do the work. No amount of patronage can design large IT systems or manage logistics of complex projects.

Those I met had in some way worked in the upper levels of Sri Lanka’s economic life. Big infrastructure projects. IT systems connected to the nation’s financial nervous system. Projects that in different ways saw the meeting of economics and politics. They got to see the inner plumbing of Sri Lanka’s financial health. Perhaps glimpsed the consequences of ignorant greedy powerful people.

In this way they built their success during the war years. Through yet another bomb blast. Power cuts. The Tsunami. The Checkpoints. Remember those? They operated in an economy where the only reliable factor was the next catastrophe. Amidst all this they stayed in Sri Lanka. While a parade of friends/relatives left in the face of tightening first world migration rules.

Now the war is faded to infrequent anecdotes. We are the “miracle of Asia”. Our rulers are flush with money our grand children won’t need to pay back. Which still doesn’t answer the original question: Why flee at the dawn of a “golden age”?

Did they see something coming that we don’t see? Something they felt even their abilities couldn’t handle? Reasons compelling enough to leave behind a comfortable life in Sri Lanka? Abandon the fruits from years of hard work?

Eventually, one of the migrants muttered to me: “I don’t want my children growing up in a dictatorship”. His “explanation” stunned me. This guy was one of those hard nosed practical analytical types. The kind who avoids politics and the theoretical to focus on facts and practical results. He seemed embarrassed by his admission. But single malts have a way of bring out confessions.

A dictatorship bad enough to drop the hard earned rewards from years of toil? The silence about the specifics made me want to think he was trying to get me off his back. Stop me from probing about his personal choices. If I mentioned this remark to my farther I know what he would say.

Granted my “investigation” of this demographic is not scientific. Mostly eavesdropped conversations. Noted body language. Recollections of interesting phrases that stayed in the brain. Poured through the sieve of idle speculation. Then distilled in my personal cocktail of cynical pessimism.

I did not use carefully worded surveys. There was no data modelling. Statistically, the tiny “sample set” is only adequate for a limp joke. So you can safely dismiss my gloomy speculation as just that.

Migration choices are highly personal. Perhaps this group of people are just ambitious. May be they think they can rise higher elsewhere. They certainly have the skills and the drive to pull it off. Sri Lanka is a small pond once you add certain globally sort after abilities to your CV. I have seen such departures before.

Yet this group reminds me of people on a high wall with a good view of a cricket match. They can see things those on the ground cannot. What they see is making them abandon a life’s work and run.

I REALY want to think I am bleating at shadows. So please convince me that I am. You know where the comment box is.


16 thoughts on “Why do successful Sri Lankans migrate?

  1. ‘Status’ is a driving force that shapes the behavior of individuals in Sri Lanka when deciding upon life’s many options. Therefore, although a professional may have achieved all the good things that life in Sri Lanka has to offer, among a small proportion of such professionals there is still an element of dissatisfaction that they have not achieved the imagined ‘status’ that is accorded to professionals who have succeeded in settling down abroad. And it is dissatisfaction after all that determines behavior – not satisfaction.


    1. Comforting to hear that 🙂 thank you. Though I have to admit it the people I met were lowering their status – may be its in the hope of raising it later on


  2. Good post. Keep talking to people like these and keep writing what you hear.

    Why have I, eternal pessimist not left yet? Too damn lazy to do any work, trying to lead a slothful existence here but not succeeding. Think I’m going to try my hand at being a giggolo next, send any applicants over. May give me something to write about as well.


    1. EPDL 😀 (Echoing Peal of Deranged Laughter) that’s er how shall we say, quite a customer service intensive line of work you are contemplating.


  3. Most of the people you mentioned above got parental support to keep up their posh lifestyle (houses, cars) some parents hand over the pension payments to their sons to pay the school fees of their grand kids and the gravy train is running out of juice, but the real reason I believe is the highly connected, well-educated NEW middle class in town. Just look at prominent youth aged between 18 and 28 (not the politicians), most of them are children of white colour workers who worked abroad or foreign-born bred ones (Some Army and NGO kids too). With their foreign degrees, flow less English and using their connections to the current power structure (Government, Private and NGO) they’re giving one hell of a competition to the local ones. If you’re in the recruitment level of a company you will notice this change instantly. Don’t worry your friends will be back as soon as their kids finish Uni.


    1. Very Interesting info – thank you for that 🙂

      The people I met definitely were not relying in parents though. Their income level was far beyond anything their parents could manage.

      The odd thing too was they could hold their own quite well against foreign grads too. Specially in the English department.

      I think though the key is the connections factor you pointed out. May be after a certain level no matter how good you are you still need insider connections to move forward.


  4. Below are fragments of a piece on this subject that I had written some time back, but never finished.

    There is nothing special about why one chooses to live in a particular place or country. It’s all about opportunities and endowments. The recent phenomenon of moving driven by compulsion has somewhat muddied the waters on this question.


    A dominant motif in early Sinhala fiction was the man who goes to Sinhale to make his money and the ramifications that flow from it. These novels were generally about Southern families, and Sinhale meant the interior: Bibile, Moneragala, or the upcountry towns that grew amidst the plantations. Even today, you will see southern names on the grocery stores as you pass through plantation towns.

    Why did these men leave their familiar territories and families to venture into these strange and inhospitable (recall these were times when Malaria was rife and life expectancy was in the low 40s) lands? Opportunity.

    Opportunity has to be defined broadly. Not just the opportunity to make money; but also the opportunity to make a difference. In many cases, the migrants became powerful political figures: C.P. de Silva and Merril de Silva (brothers) who represented Minneriya in the North Central Province were originally from Balapitiya. W. Dahanayake, who represented Bibile was from Galle.


    People are endowed with different capabilities. Depending on their endowments, they are more or less suited to take advantage of opportunities. For example, a person who may have professional qualifications on paper, but is not comfortable in English and is unable to adapt to western culture quickly, is poorly endowed to succeed as a professional in the West. But he may be superbly endowed to succeed in Sri Lanka, where professional efficacy requires the ability to maintain, and draw upon, a complex web of mutually reinforcing relationships.

    In an ideal world, people will make rational calculations about their comparative advantages in terms of opportunity and endowment and decide on where to live.


    In the decidedly non-ideal world of ethnic discrimination and political instability that we live in, many of our decisions regarding where to live may be driven by compulsion: I move, not because it is advantageous to me, but because I can no longer continue to live in the place that I am now in. When one moves because of compulsion, little weight is given to the fit between opportunity and endowment.

    Mobility and freedom

    Albert Hirschman in his classic book, Exit, voice and loyalty, says that economics is characterized by exit and politics by voice. What he means is that in the economic sphere, when a “customer” gets bad goods or services, she does not spend a lot of time protesting, most of the time; she goes to another supplier or exits. By contrast, protest (or voice) is the dominant response in the political sphere. This, says Hirschman, is because exit is not an option in politics; you cannot simply obtain government services from another supplier if the government you are under is bad. You have to try to fix it through voice, as a citizen.

    But for a certain stratum in each society, primarily professionals but in some cases the wealthy, there is an exit option in the political sphere. Many educated people in Bihar have moved to other states in India in the face of Laloo Prasad’s antics. A significant slice of the professional stratum of Sri Lanka has moved to Australia, Canada, New Zealand and elsewhere in the face of the malgovernance of this country. Globalization has increased these opportunities, even while racism and xenophobia are making migration more difficult. The debate over a new Immigration Law in the United States exemplifies the interplay of these factors.

    Brain drain was a key metaphor in the 1970s. Brain circulation has replaced it. The more professionals move back and forth, the better it will be for the countries they move to and for them.


  5. I I think Rohan listed some good points, but they don’t really explain the phenomenon amongst the specific socio-economic class Creno has described.

    I this the education and the experience is a enabler for people to explore and achieve what they might see as lacking – either at at social status level (as Ekel mentions) or simply sample life elsewhere.

    There are so many things at play in this, not just the individuals hopes, fears and anxieties but also the pressures and expectations of the work/social group that he/she is in.

    And in there, surely, is also post-colonial inferiority complex that whole sections of our society seems to allow to determine their thoughts and deeds.

    Most of the time I feel what is shown to be desirable middle class lifestyle choices are half-baked, ill thought-out simulations of western European/US tastes.

    So many things are … so naff – from (fake)leather sofas (why, in a tropical country ?) to salarymen sweltering in shiny suits, socks and shoes (why, in a tropical country ?), to the elevation KFC/MacDonalds/Pizza Huts to haute cuisine (the food of the poor in rich countries.)

    It may be that, instead of the ersatz lifestyle that that is achievable here, people might want to have the real thing.

    After all, this is the fate of middle-classes the world over. Being strivers and social climbers, being people who do not want to just accept their place (in the social hierarchy) and ending up as people who do not know where they belong at all.

    You know, people who are anxious about right type of wine to take to a dinner party (and go on courses to learn all about it). How can you live in the world care free, with burdens such as these?


    1. Valid points. I think they too could apply. Given how diverse human motivation can be I doubt any one line of motivation can explain migration choices. Its usually a fuzzy blend of a lot of forces.


      1. I agree. But at any one time and in a specific socio-economic group some of these factors must coalesce and lead to a large number of people within that group to want to migrate. I am sure if you ask enough people in that group you could come with a consistent set of reasons.

        There may be of course peer pressure, and element of keeping up with the Dissanayakes within each group, but underlying that I am sure there are some interesting reasons.

        For a lot of my parents generation it was opportunity to make money and in the 80s that was probably very valid, together with the clouds of civil war looming.

        There is also the demographics of who have been given the opportunity and from which country. Who goes where and why?

        My experience and evidence is purely anecdotal. After the 80s there was not such a higher percentage of professionally qualified people migrating to the UK, but a a lot of basically Sinhalese ‘chancers’ and of course may Tamil people running for their lives.

        In the 90s the chancers established a whole new criminal gang-class of Sri Lankan that never existed in the UK that I grew up in, The Lankan Boys (or was it Boyz?) in East London is one example.

        A lot of the people I met in the 2000s were students who all wanted to go back and give something back. May be by then Sri Lankans were not migrating so much to the UK as to elsewhere.

        Things have changed again and recently, like you, I have met quite a few professionals planing to go.

        Finally, in to the mix, don’t forget the small island scenario as well. Look at Ireland and other small nations and you will see a much larger percent of the population migrate than the bigger nations. Of course her economic development, colonization all play a factor.

        So what you have got here is really a question that requires a PhD level of study and investigation.


      2. Agree with your point 🙂 it’s just that I think the coalescing factors are felt by individuals differently. But in terms of the overall trend these individual factors aren’t significant.

        You are quite right – there’s plenty of scoop for several PhD dissertations.


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