Travel freedom for Sri Lankans

Nov 23, 2011 (LBO) – Recently, the Government of Sri Lanka announced that it will charge 50 US dollars per person from every foreigner entering Sri Lanka, except for citizens of Singapore and Maldives who could come in for free.

It was then reported that the rates would be rolled back to USD 10 for SAARC country nationals and USD 20 for all others.

The back and forth since the beginning of 2010 is a less-than-optimal way of running public policy, but still, not a bad outcome from the perspective of the tourist industry.

A Foreign Service that earns its keep

The critical intervention came from the Indian High Commission which protested the effect of the USD 50 charge on Indian citizens. This is a model worth emulation by Sri Lanka’s Ministry of External Affairs. Reducing the hassles and expenses Sri Lankan passport holders are subjected to should be one of the high priority tasks for the Ministry and the foreign missions under it in 2012.

The Indian Foreign Service looks after its citizens; ours should too.

Over the past decades, the pressures created by the war and an economy that was not growing fast enough caused many Sri Lankans to leave the country by means that were not always legal. The case of the “Handball Team” that illegally entered Germany, documented in the film Machang, exemplified the phenomenon. Understandably, the countries subjected to this barrage of lies and deception tightened their procedures.

But now the war is over. The economy is growing at a healthy pace and is likely to keep growing. Life is not so rosy in the rest of the world, with high unemployment in many countries and anti-immigrant sentiment rising. It is now time for the restrictions to be relaxed. This cannot be done by individual citizens writing letters to the newspapers. It is the duty of the Ministry of External Affairs to represent us: to object when other countries impose unreasonable burdens and to propose constructive solutions that minimize inconvenience to the law-abiding.

Over the past decades, Sri Lanka’s foreign missions have been converted into “home-away-from-home” services for visiting Sri Lankans in government or with connections and as patronage rewards. It is high time they started doing something useful for the common citizens too.

Priority plan for 2012

The new visa regime has three categories: (a) free for Singapore and Maldives; (b) USD 10 for SAARC countries; and (c) USD 20 for the rest of the world. It can be used as leverage (with some countries, at least).

First, the Ministry of External Affairs should compile and publish a good database of visa formalities and fees affecting Sri Lankans. This would be a service in and of itself. They could then inform the Controller of Immigration and Emigration of any countries other than Singapore and Maldives that give free entry to Sri Lankans. Nepal, a SAARC country that Sri Lankans visit on pilgrimage, does not charge a visa fee from Sri Lankans. Possibly they could be moved into Category (a) without too much difficulty. Entering into bilateral agreements will lock in the rules for the benefit of Sri Lankan citizens.

Second, each Sri Lankan mission should be required to identify the countries where it would be feasible to negotiate a relaxation of visa rules affecting Sri Lankan passport holders. For example, given the Minister’s public statements about our excellent relations with Bangladesh and Pakistan, it should be easy to move these SAARC neighbors into the (a) category, wherein Sri Lankan citizens would be allowed free entry with minimal paperwork and vice versa.

We need not limit our efforts to the SAARC. Just a few years ago, Sri Lankans had visa-free entry to Hong Kong. Now, one needs a visa to transit the airport. Surely this is something that can be remedied given the claimed warmth of relations between the present government and the government of China. Iran, our great friend, doles out visas like something precious. Surely, the Ministry can get some of these unnecessary restrictions removed on the basis of our deep friendship.

Third, the Ministry can make a public commitment to performance. It can take Sri Lanka’s standing in the Henley Visa Restriction Index (https://www.henleyglobal.com/citizenship/visa-restrictions/) at the start of the year as the baseline and commit to an advance of x number of places by yearend. We are so far down that this will be easy. The last I looked we were 83rd out of 98.

But to be reasonable, it is unlikely that Sri Lankans can gain visa-free entry to the US, to the Schengen countries, and even to India, in the short term. Here, External Affairs can focus on reducing the hassles and assisting the local missions of these countries to streamline their processes. Again, measurable performance indicators can be defined.

And finally, this might give some kind of performance measure for the Ambassadors/High Commissioners. If no progress, recall?

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.