Sri Lanka’s visa changes

Nov 01, 2010 (LBO) – I keep getting asked about when Sri Lanka will change its visa policies. The out-of-the-blue announcement that visitors from all countries other than the Maldives and Singapore would have to obtain visas prior to arrival and the even more sudden suspension of that decision appears to have carried far.

I have long been an advocate of less onerous regulation of cross-border travel. One could say this is mostly self-interest because I travel half the year and I travel to all sorts of places. But it also happens to be a position that makes sense. When capital and goods are mobile, it is not fair that only people (some people) should not be. Droughts occurred in Africa throughout history.

It is only with nation states and the prevention of movement across borders that they resulted in famines. Small markets produce small minds. Or as our saying puts it, “avidda paya dahas vatiyi.”

I am not advocating the abolition of the nation state, nor am proposing that we assume away terrorists and bad people.

A nation state must maintain control of its borders. The trick is to do it in ways that minimize arbitrary exercise of discretion, a goal that is at the heart of all good government reforms.

The visa issuance process is the poster child of arbitrary exercise of discretion, as captured so well by Bertolt Brecht’s poem “Ode to a high dignitary

“Exalted Vice-Consul, deign To grant your quivering louse The stamp that means happiness!

Sublime spirit In whose image the gods were created Suppose your inscrutable thoughts To be interrupted for one second!

. . . . . . . . .”

He wrote it in Helsinki, awaiting a visa to escape the advancing Nazis.

Justifications

First, the rationale for visas. There is no right to enter a foreign country; only a privilege. Permission must be granted. It can be granted at the border, or prior to reaching the border. If the person has undertaken a long and expensive journey (as is the case in ferry and bridge-less island Sri Lanka), being told no at the border is tough. Thus the rationale for visas: the decision is taken closer to the traveler’s domicile and is actually intended to be a kindness to him/her. But, of course, there can be unintended unkindnesses.

Is it possible to strip arbitrariness out of the decision to grant or not grant entry to a foreigner? Unless government figures out how to predict individual behavior, no. Can the arbitrariness be reduced while keeping to the original intention of being kind? Yes. Will there be mistakes? Yes. Can one balance the costs of mistakes against the costs of reducing natural human mobility? Yes.

The first justification evident from the now suspended Cabinet decision is reciprocity. India and Brazil (big countries from the South) base their visa policies for the most part on reciprocity. If the Americans take biometrics from Brazilians, the Brazilians import expensive equipment to collect American biometrics, tourism be damned.

The Cabinet seems to think that only Singapore and the Maldives give Sri Lankans free visa on arrival. They missed Nepal. And there are a few other countries like Uganda and some countries in the Caribbean where the old Commonwealth courtesies have not been removed; but the problem is that only few Sri Lankans go to these places.

According to the Visa Restrictions Index developed by Henley & Partners, some countries have it worse than us. We are ranked 83rd out of 98 (there are many ties), while Bangladesh is 84th and China is 88th. But sadly, we are ranked behind countries like Cuba (78th) and Sierra Leone (64th), which are exemplars of mass emigration and failed states, respectively.

The citizens of the United Kingdom and Denmark are at the top of ranking. In Asia, Japan comes first (6th worldwide) and Singapore next (11th worldwide). Citizens of countries that are wealthy can travel easy. The chances of them staying on in other countries or blowing up things are considered slim, it seems.

The likelihood of exporting bombs, human and otherwise, appears to factor in to the equation: Afghanistan is dead last, ranked 98th; Iraq is 97th; Eritrea, the erstwhile friend of the LTTE, is ranked 93rd, and so on. Yemen is currently 88th, tied with China, but that can be expected to change soon.

So now we begin to get a fix on causes: terrorism and illegal emigration due to political or economic reasons. We had the former; we still have the the latter.

So unless we fully remove the conditions for both and communicate their removal effectively, it is unlikely that visa on arrival will be extended to Sri Lankans by too many countries in the near future. I was shocked to learn that even Iran, our most excellent friend, requires visas from Sri Lankans. Cause for a friendly phone call to Mr Ahmadinejad, methinks.

But why not reciprocity? An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. Always possible, but the logic should be that of revenge, not that of changing the behavior of the other. It is unlikely that little Sri Lanka’s visa-rule changes will even be noticed by the government in the big tourist markets shown in Table 1 (where the impact will be felt by individual tourists). The Maldives already gives visa on arrival and can be excluded from the discussion. They might even benefit from diversion of tourists wanting hassle-free vacations.

So the decision has to be based on factors such as impact on the tourist industry, whether or not our visa-issuance procedures can respond to large numbers of applications expeditiously, and so on. The surprise announcement and its hurried suspension indicate that little or no preparation went into it.

The second justification is money. It is not evident in the language of the Cabinet announcement, but it is present among officials. Now that the war is over, why does the government have to forego an easy source of revenue?

For that, there is no reason to require prior visas. Just simply seat a cashier next to the Immigration Official at the counter. We currently tax all travelers in the form of a significant levy embedded in the ticket price. That could simply be increased. But then our citizens will also suffer. So if we want to be kind to our people, the best way to solve this particular problem is to have cashiers at the airport. The effect on tourism will be minimal, unless, of course, the amounts are astronomical.

The third justification is prevention of overstays and violations of conditions of admission, as publicized by the newspapers. These are real problems and it would be irresponsible to not act on them, as has been the case for many years.

There are many solutions (none perfect) to problems of overstays and violations of conditions of admission, short of requiring visas prior to boarding flights to Sri Lanka. The prior-visa requirement is not a foolproof method, as the phenomenon of Sri Lankans in Italy demonstrates. One requires visas to enter Italy and it’s difficult to reach Italy from Sri Lanka. But there are many Sri Lankans in Italy who are not supposed to be there and/or not supposed to be doing what they are doing there.

And Singapore? Allows free, on-arrival visas to the same Sri Lankans, and does not have large numbers of illegals running around. The answer appears to lie somewhere other than in people lining up outside Sri Lankan embassies forms in hand.

Solutions

I am sure many different solutions can be thought up for the different policy problems identified above. I invite my readers to propose them. If the government is not considering policy changes in a responsible manner, we must help. I will simply get the discussion started with one proposal.

The part of the larger problem I want to solve is how to persuade the Indian government to liberalize visa rules for Sri Lankans wishing to enter India, in the aftermath of the decapitation of the LTTE and the demise of the people who ordered the killing of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.

More Sri Lankans go to India than Indians come to Sri Lanka (the ratio is roughly 2:1). Many Sri Lankans who go to India are not good at filling up forms and satisfying bureaucratic requirements. There is merit in making life easy for old ladies going on pilgrimage.

David Headley, the spy of Mumbai, has caused India to close the stable door after the carnage of 26/11. What chances there were of simple visa liberalization evaporated in the aftermath of the Headley arrest. An acceptable solution must, therefore, place security at the center.

The solution lies in integrating the immigration and emigration databases of the two countries, including the red flag indicators supplied by the security agencies. Few countries, other than the US and Canada (and possibly Mexico), have done this, but it is worth trying, especially in light of the Indian Government’s ongoing high-profile push for a Unique Identifier, led by Nandan Nilekani, formerly of Infosys.

Sri Lanka is the neighbor India has the best relations with (except Bhutan and the Maldives). If India and Sri Lanka can implement such a system, it can then be extended to Bangladesh where cross-border issues are a lot more sensitive; and Nepal, where border controls may have to be tightened as a result of deteriorating relations.

This is the positive approach to alleviating the problems faced by Sri Lankans wishing to travel like everyone else. Ill-considered and impulsive policy changes are likely to cause more problems while not making life any better for Sri Lankan travelers.

Rohan Samarajiva heads LirneAsia, a regional think tank. He was also a former telecoms regulator in Sri Lanka. To read previous columns go to LBOs main navigation panel and click on the ‘Choices’ category.