Where Do Migrant Workers Fit in Sri Lanka’s Population?

In Sri Lanka, the projected population growth rate is slowing down and is expected to turn negative around 2031, at which time, the population is expected to peak to approximately 21.883 million. These population estimates reflects the ‘usual resident’ population in the country – those living or intend living in Sri Lanka continuously for more than six months. As such, the number of Sri Lankan migrants is not considered in this population estimate, and there is no updated estimate for the number of Sri Lankans living in the rest of the world. The only available estimates is for migrant workers of Sri Lankan origin (over 1.5 million), which is neither current nor precise. Despite the absence of a clear understanding of the number of migrant worker of Sri Lankan origin, there is a strong nexus between them and the resident population of Sri Lanka.


Temporary Migrant Workers


As per Department of Census and Statistics definition, temporary migrant workers are those who have migrated for employment, have been living aboard for 6 months or more, and intend returning to Sri Lanka. Presently, there are approximately 497,544 temporary migrant workers in the rest of the world.[1] These temporary migrants are the type of migrants who are most connected to the population in Sri Lanka. They live outside Sri Lanka as part of optimizing their lifecycle residential location sequence and maintain regular connections, and continue to contribute to the domestic population in many ways. Most temporary migrants return to Sri Lanka with improved human capital/skills and accumulated savings, which contribute to the productivity of the local economy upon their return and reintegration.


Social Costs of Migration


Among temporary migrant workers, nearly half are females. The departure of females has significant impact on the population left behind as most female migrant workers are married and have children. The long-term absence of a maternal figure has emotional, psychological, and social impact on families of migrants.[2] Additionally, spouse and other family members such as elderly parents also find it difficult to cope with the ‘domestic upheaval’ due to migration.


How Vital are Migrant Workers to the Country?


Despite negative implications, migration has tremendous benefits as well. In 2013, migrant workers contributed US$ 6.4 billion in remittances, which accounted for over a third of Sri Lanka’s foreign earnings, 9.5 % of Gross Domestic Production (GDP), and over 3.5 months’ worth of goods and services imports. This is clearly highlighted in Figure 1, which shows the increasing importance of remittances toward foreign exchange earnings in Sri Lanka, relative to other contributors such as export of garment, tea, rubber and tourism. Moreover, literature shows that remittances to Sri Lanka are positively correlated with oil prices. In the context that fuel imports account for nearly a quarter of Sri Lanka’s total imports, the capacity of remittances to hedge the domestic population against oil shocks is as valuable as remittances. Another notable contribution by migrant workers to the local economy is through the domestic labour market. In 2013, migrant workers accounted for nearly a quarter of the labour force[3]and have contributed towards keeping unemployment at current low levels in Sri Lanka[4].


Figure 3: Major Sources of Foreign Exchange Earnings in Sri Lanka 2009-2013

BW blog pop migration

Source: Adopted from CBSL-AR (2013)



Where do Migrant Workers Fit in?


Amidst such prominent socio-economic implications of labour migration on the resident population in Sri Lanka, there is a question of ‘belonging’ for migrant workers. They are neither here nor there, as the temporary nature of their migration prevents them from fully assimilating to the destination country. Upon returning to Sri Lanka, they often experience difficulties in reintegrating back into the society[5]. During the period they are away from the country, they are neither counted in censuses nor can they vote at elections in Sri Lanka[6]. Depending on the definition of ‘foreign born persons’ adopted in destination countries, some Sri Lankan migrants may be counted in censuses at destination, but are likely to get minimum protection due to their ‘second class citizen’ status.


As such, Sri Lankan migrant workers are an ‘invisible population’ of the country. They are so connected to Sri Lanka that their absence is dearly felt while their support is highly appreciated. The mutual support between migrant workers and the resident population of Sri Lanka is so important that both need the other for socio-economic success.



[1] This estimate should not be confused with estimated over 1 million Sri Lankan migrant workers, which includes both permanent and temporary migrant workers.

[2] Ukwatte, Swarna. 2010. Sri Lankan female domestic workers overseas: mothering their children from a distance. Journal of Population Research.

[3] Migrants are not in the denominator of this estimate.

[4] However, it should be noted that some migrants – especially females, were not prior participants in the labour force in Sri Lanka.

[5] Athukorala, Premachandra. 1990. International contract migration and the reintegration of return migrants: The experience of Sri Lanka. International Migration Review, 323{346.

Gunasinghe, M. 2011. `Abandoned and Forgotten’: Returnee Migrant Women Workers in Sri Lanka. Pages 93{152 of: Skanthakumar, B. (ed), Rights, Remittances and Reintegration: Women Migrant Workers and Returnees in Sri Lanka. Colombo: Law & Society Trust.

[6] Even though Sri Lanka ratified the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families, which holds that Migrant workers shall have the right to vote and to be elected at elections, absentee voting is not yet materialized in Sri Lanka(IOM, 2006).