COLOMBO: One of the longest queues in the Sri Lankan capital Colombo is for the exit, as thousands of people line up outside the immigration office seeking passports to escape the country's economic crisis. Every day, about 3,000 people submit their papers and 15,000 rupees ($42) to obtain travel documents. The office is running 24 hours a day, six days a week to try to cope with demand.
Many applicants still have to wait overnight, like Madushini, 35, whose guesthouse business in the western province of Udawalawa fell victim first to coronavirus and then to the financial turmoil. Now, she wants to find work in the US, where her cousin lives. "Bookings from foreign tourists have dried up, so I need to find a way to earn and secure my son's life," she told AFP, giving only one name. "The whole country is closed, and we don't have money."
Overseas numbers swell
Some of those waiting in the queue go without food and water for fear of losing their place, sweating in the humid tropical weather. Unemployed chef Samantha, 34, has secured an offer from a hotel in Cyprus and had been in line for 18 hours when he spoke to AFP. "I want to leave Sri Lanka as soon as possible," he said. "I have no work here now and no money. I will wait in this queue until I get a passport."
The pandemic caused a foreign exchange crisis that critics say was exacerbated by government mismanagement. The situation left tourism-dependent Sri Lanka unable to import enough fuel, medicines and other essentials. Inflation in June stood at 54.6 percent, according to official figures, and the Indian Ocean island country has defaulted on its $51 billion debt.
Overseas remittances - also hit by the coronavirus - have long been another economic mainstay, with over 10 percent of the 22 million population working abroad, mostly in Gulf countries. That number is now swelling. The immigration department has already issued more passports this year than for the whole of 2021, their figures show. Numbers have generally been around 50,000 a month but jumped to an estimated 122,000 in June.
'Help our country'
Many passport applicants travel long distances from rural areas on crowded buses. "I know some people in Saudi Arabia. They have promised to help me find work as a housemaid there," said housewife Shantakala, 46, from Chilaw. "My husband will look after our farmland where we don't make enough for both of us and I will go away." Others are students abandoning their education.
"We need to get out of here, find work and support our family in this difficult economic situation," said Imesh Tarusha, 18, one of a family of six. On Wednesday, Ranil Wickremesinghe was elected Sri Lanka's next president, taking over from Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who fled the country and resigned after protesters forced him from his palace. Colombo is also in talks with the International Monetary Fund for a bailout, but the would-be emigrants have little hope of improvement soon.
"My country is beautiful but without fuel. It's very difficult," said Shantakala. "I hope it will get better but I don't know how long it will take." Immigration officers are working around the clock to hand out documents. "It's exhausting work," one staff member told AFP on condition of anonymity. "No one goes home." "It's important to issue as many passports as possible so that people can travel and send remittances home," the staffer added. "That will help our country." - AFP