Sri Lanka Can Gain More from Migration by Helping Returnees Reintegrate Better

I have been migrating to Italy since 1993…my last job was as a caretaker in a castle…I returned to Sri Lanka in 2003 with the intention of becoming a tourist guide. I am fluent in speaking foreign languages and thought this would be an ideal job for me… but I was unable to work out this dream since I received a negative response from the relevant institutions…”, says Nihal, a 58 year old father of one, who returned to Sri Lanka once again earlier this year.


Nihal is just one of the many migrants who find the process of economic reintegration a challenge. Many return with minimal savings, and also face difficulties in resuming employment after their return. Migrant workers generally return with accumulated savings and new skills. But the economic implications of migration for the home country depend on how these savings and new skills are utilized. Some studies find that returnees can contribute to the economy more than migrant workers, if the returnees are successfully reintegrated. However if reintegration is not successful, it can cause destabilizing effects on the country and can result in migrants going back abroad again and again.  The ability of returnees to impact a country’s development depends on both the conditions of return as well as their reintegration experiences.


Re-integration Challenges


A recent study by the IPS (based on a survey done by ILO and the SPAARC on returnee migrants), shows that a majority of the returnee migrants have not successfully reintegrated upon their return. Of the sample of 1,981 respondents in the survey, only 21% improved their family’s economic situation, only 6.3% improved the possession of productive assets (Figure 1), only 47% are currently employed, only 26% successfully reintegrated with their immediate families, and only 5% successfully reintegrated with their extended families. Interviews with returnees indicated that some of the key challenges faced by them included difficulties in finding employment, lack of funds for self-employment, and a lack of information and documentation required to access loans and other business opportunities.


The National Labour Migration Policy (2008) considers reintegration of returnee migrant workers a priority area, and since then several specific programmes on reintegration have come into operation by several state and non-state entities. Most state-assisted economic reintegration programmes concentrate on providing loans for self-employment ventures or for housing. Meanwhile, non-state actors play an active role in providing vocational training and business development training for returnee migrants. However, vocational training offered to returnee migrants by government institutions in Sri Lanka is limited to just pre-departure training, and that too mainly for young people. Yet, despite these programmes, the IPS study reveals that that less than 10% of the returnees received any institutional support.


Figure 1



Learning from the Philippines


Compared to the Sri Lankan experience, the Philippines has a more comprehensive reintegration programme from pre-departure, to on-site, and return. This programme addresses both psychological as well as economic aspects of reintegration. To provide psychological support, the programme organizes gatherings for migrants and returnee families, provides counseling services, and assists in managing stress. To provide support for economic reintegration, the programmes provide livelihood projects, community-based income-generating projects, skills training, and credit schemes. Some of these training programmes are conducted at the overseas work places itself, and migrants are provided with information on investment opportunities available back home, while still working abroad.


As part of the employment facilitation services, returnees can get referral assistance for local or foreign employment through the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA). Trainings and scholarships are also awarded for both returnee migrants and their dependents to engage in short-term vocational and technical courses. Further, awards such as the ‘Model Overseas Filipino Workers Family of the Year’ recognize the achievements of workers as well as their families in managing the impact of overseas employment in family life. This is used as a strategy to exemplify the best practices adopted by families to enhance the benefits of migration. The Philippines also has a National Reintegration Centre, which acts as a “one-stop centre” for all reintegration services, and coordinates and facilitates the delivery of services by all relevant service providers.


What Can Sri Lanka Do?


Like in the Philippines, reintegration programmes in Sri Lanka should cater to all aspects of reintegration, and recognize the importance of working with migrant families, rather than individuals. Reintegration programmes must start working with migrants before they depart and continue to work with them during their time abroad as well as on their return. Access to reintegration assistance can be facilitated through a ‘one-stop shop’. Reintegration programmes should also extend to psychological counseling and support for family members. The key is to improve coordination between different reintegration programmes that are available and to improve the awareness among migrants of the programmes that are on offer.


Nihal, after many failed attempts at starting a business in Sri Lanka, is considering migrating for work yet again. A better business environment would have allowed him to use the skills he has gained and the money he has saved in starting and running a business in Sri Lanka. It would have not only benefitted him, but also the country.



This article was written by IPS researchers Nisha Arunatilake, Suwendrani Jayaratne, Nipuni Perera and Neluka Gunasekera , based on the findings from a study titled ‘Returning Home: Experiences & Challenges’ carried out by them. A ‘Policy Insights’ brief of the study is embedded below, for reading and free download. For more articles on migration and development, visit the ‘Managing Migration’ series .



Policy Insights – Are Returnee Migrant Workers Economically Better Off? by IPS Sri Lanka