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Wed, 12 December 2018 14:02:25
Improving the quality of the Sri Lankan passport
24 Dec, 2013 07:35:50
By Rohan Samarajiva
Dec 23, 2013 (LBO) - I travel on a Sri Lanka passport. The hassle is so great that I regret not getting another passport. My life was made simpler, for a short time, by the wonderful one-year SAARC visa that allowed me visa-free access to our neighboring countries.
I still have it, but now it is given for three months at a time. I’ve already had to decline one invitation to speak in Bangladesh because I lacked the time to get the SAARC visa renewed.

The problem has several aspects: According to the 2013 Henley Visa Restriction Index, Sri Lankans need visas to enter all but 38 countries. In contrast, Bangladeshis and North Koreans can go to 41 countries without visas. Who is worse than us? Just a handful. Afghans can only go to 28 countries visa-less (and we need a visa to visit Afghanistan). Iraq to 31. And yet, they carefully screen Sri Lankans wishing to visit Baghdad; compel us to enter data on a dysfunctional online system and all that.

Now compare this with countries Sri Lankanslike to settle in: UK (173 countries without a visa); USA (172); Norway and Canada (170); New Zealand (168); Australia (167). I am not saying people move to these countries for this reason alone, but it sure looks sweet from where I sit.

The paperwork needed to get a visa and the fees are another part of the problem. Then there is the time taken and the hassle. Many a time, the first thing I do on returning from a trip is apply for another visa. And the pile of paper they ask for. I have great help, but all this costs money. These burdens amount to hidden taxes on Sri Lankan travelers.

Machang, the film, best illustrates how we dug ourselves into this hole. Every lie that can be told has been told by Sri Lankans seeking to leave this blessed isle.

The war is now behind us. People are coming back. Surely, it’s time for some progress to be made on the visa front. The model is the Visa Waiver Agreement between Sri Lanka and Seychelles (one of the 38), signed earlier this year. I hope External Affairs makes visa waiver agreements an integral element in all negotiations that are part of collecting African and Central Asian votes to fend off UN resolutions. Now that the electronic visa authorization system is in place and working well, the government has a chip to negotiate with.

Even better, why can we not get the same kind of agreement with countries that Sri Lankans actually visit in numbers? Bangladesh? China? Hong Kong, where we had visa-free access until a few years back? Thailand? Myanmar?

In Nigeria, every minister has to sign a performance contract with the President, and is held accountable. Good idea.

Let’s include reduction of visa hassles for Sri Lankans in the performance contract for the Minister of External Affairs. Do better than North Korea or you’re out. Prevent the erosion of the value of the SAARC visa or we’ll find something else for you to do.

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.

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14. SHM Jan 03
Dear Rohan, this is a good article, and I am surprised how little attention is paid towards improving the state of the Sri Lankan passport. Indeed, there is barely a debate about how one may works towards improving this. Maybe the Sri Lankan state is not interested in changing the status quo. Atleast thats the sense I get.
13. Anton Feb 04
This inconvenience, like many other inconveniences we face, boils down to basic socio-economic factors. If majority of our citizens can be considered trustworthy to be accepted into a country without the need for pre-vetting because they earn a sufficient enough wage so there isn't an incentive for them to disappear upon arrival, countries will start to loosen these controls.

It will also make sense for Sri Lanka to have a more sensible immigration policy. I decided (admittedly with a heavy heart) to obtain a British passport simply because it's much easier for me to travel to Europe and US on work. But now I can't stay in SL for more than a month unless I apply for a visa (cost me $150 to extend visas for my wife and kids who ended up staying for 6 weeks). They also haven't yet published guidance on dual citizenship almost 3 years after it was suspended. I'm sure people will say (maybe with justification) that, since I decided to leave, I deserve to be locked out of my country, but I look at my colleagues from the US, Canada and Aus with envy who have worked in London for many years, decided to apply for naturalisation, yet manages to retain their identity and citizenship in the country of their birth.

12. Rohan Samarajiva Jan 15
@Niro appears to lay the blame totally on the citizens of Sri Lanka. I agree that we have contributed by engaging in every deception known to man. But, this still does not justify why we need visas to go to Bangladesh, Pakistan and Myanmar, to name a few. These are not countries awash on "low cost labor" from Sri Lanka.
11. Niro Jan 09
Visa free travel is mostly to facilitate hassle free holidays/short stays.

Most Sri Lankans go to other countries for employment as low skilled laborers. Go to our airport on any day, 75% or more Sri Lankan passport holders heading overseas are for low skilled work. Many countries perceive Sri Lankans as labourers or perhaps as petty criminals of the lowest category.Therefore the perception of us is pretty low in many parts of the world and we are bundled with other nationalities who come as laborers, criminals or illegal immigrants.

There is no incentive for these countries to relax the visa rules for handful of genuine Sir Lankan bona fide tourists!

This perception is unlikely to change until we stop sending low skilled laborers to the rest of the world.

10. Avinda Jan 09
I am in the same situation as Rohan, except for the last 22 years I have been living in OECD countries. I have stubbornly held on to my Sri Lankan passport. I have no issue getting a visa to countries I visit, except the procedure I have to follow. Things have got worst now, having to get bio tests prior to the visa application

I don't think we can improve this situation in the near future. This is because every time an OECD country relaxes visa regulations on Sri Lanka. We Sri Lankans abuse it.

This is nothing to do with economics situation in the country, but their attitude. Sri Lanka's economic situation and the quality of life are very much better than most countries in the region and other developing countries., Yet our passports are badly received.

We as a society is very corrupt, not honest and always attempting to look for an avenue to abuse the system. This is the fact of life from the beggar on the street, the civil servant, school teacher, private sector employee, qualified professional to the politician.

So unless Sri Lanka attempt to address those issues. I have given up any hopes traveling to any OECD country visa free.

9. Abu Dec 27
Good article Rohan, keep up the good work. Each one of us has to fight in different fronts to make our country better. I had been refusing to take the passport in the G7 country I lived many years. Recently moved to Dubai and realized the difficulties of the SL passport.

Also impressive is the UAEs continuous efforts to improve its citizens life quality. Recently visa free status was given by UK to UAE nationals. There are many Lankans who proudly represent SL in many parts of the world and the SL government should through their ministries try to make their lives easy. Hong Kong travel has recently become a nightmare.

What happened to the visa free status we had for Malaysia. So many questions remain on the effort of those officials.

I have no doubt we deserve much better treatment that we are getting now. I am a Muslim and I am still happily Sri Lankan. I still have the option of a developed country passport but there are certain things in your life that belongs to you and worth keeping. But I doubt at the current state I can convince my children to hold on to the SL passport.

8. Gamini Dec 26
Can you please let me know which countries a Sri Lanka passport holder can enter without a visa ? I thought it was only Singapore and the Maldives. In the '80s I entered Yugoslavia and Hong Kong without a visa but it seems that privilege does not exist any more.
7. Rohan Samarajiva Dec 25
People are indeed surprised there are countries other than Singapore and Maldives that allow visa-free entry to Sri Lankans. There are, but they tend to be small Commonwealth countries that still observe the old Commonwealth courtesies, e.g.:

In response to the gentleman who thinks mine is simply a self-interested plea.

Of course, my life is improved if traffic in Colombo is managed better, air quality is improved, the Sri Lankan passport is treated with greater respect, etc. Does this mean I should not write about any of these things? I fail to see the logic.

His other argument seems to be that I should have fixed the problem when I was in government. I was never in a position of political power. I was a technocrat who implemented government policy.

I was never in the Ministry of External Affairs. I worked in government for the Ministry for Economic Reform, Science and Technology (running the Telecom Regulatory Commission was quite removed from visa matters, I hope all would agree). During that time I did negotiate on one visa-related matter: the preliminary work on the India-Sri Lanka CEPA. We did not get all that we wanted (that's the nature of negotiation), but we achieved a relaxation of procedures for pilgrims traveling in groups to India.

What Hirunika has to do with all this I am at a loss to explain.

6. fuss Dec 25
Freedoms are peculiar. Your passport is a reflection of the travel freedoms you enjoy. The problem of our passport is a direct reflection of the status of the Sri Lanka citizen.

Fifty years ago Sri Lankan citizens had a better status.

The state has reduced the citizen to nothing domestically. That is reflected in the passport externally.

The Sri Lanka citizen is now a serf, who has no right even to a fair trial.

The elected ruling class and state workers has built system of degrading the citizen in many ways and getting privileges for themselves.

The State, the elected ruling class, and rulers servants have been quite active in getting visa free privileges for themselves. A series of such agreements giving visa free status to 'official passports' have been signed recently.

At the same time restrictions have been placed on ordinary citizens such as in the case of Cambodia.

To change the situation and get state workers to negotiate on behalf of ordinary citizens, a true independent public service (as opposed to a ruler's service)has to be rebuilt.

The citizen should agitate for the official passport to be abolished and end this feudal downgrading of the citizen and bring equality back.

The status of the Sri Lankan citizen and how the state treats citizens was clearly seen in the case of the Sri Lankan born Australian citizen JVP leader.

It must be said that the concept of the modern citizen, visa and work permit is a Western nationalist construction.

In order to lift the status of the passport, the State and the ruling class must start treating Sri Lankan citizens better and giving them more freedoms and rule of law.

The way our citizens are treated in the Middle East for example is a case in point.

The economic situation or poverty is also a reason. If the state continues to depreciate the currency in a Mercantilist ideology to boost exports do not expect prosperity.

If there is no rule of law, no freedom, no sound money expect people to migrate either permanently or for menial jobs.

This will result in recipient countries tightening rules against us and mirroring the treatment of our own country to us.

The urbanized intelligensia which was responsible for degrading the citizens to this status since independence has the ability and the ways to change the situation and improve the freedoms of the citizens if they want to.

5. thalapathpitiye hemananda Dec 25
This is an excellent idea
4. Kamal Dec 24
It makes me smile when I see people like Rohan Samarajiva, who try to come across as some type of patriot because he is "not getting another passport". Now that his SAARC visa privileges are not working he wants the rules changed for him. Should the rest of us be upset for him? Welcome to the lives of regular citizens of Sri Lanka!!! The lives you were supposed to uplift while you had those privileges.

I call this Hirunika Premachandra syndrome. A lot of Sri Lankan big-wigs suffer from that.

3. Al Somapala Dec 24
It all due to those scumbags who do all the credit card skimming, refugee status, working illegally etc, etc...that has brought it to such a state. You elite Sinhala justify and even condone these 'good for nothing guys' by being silent about it.

There was a time in Malaysia, when someone wanted a passport, a so called 'Division 1' Officer who knows the individual has to give his name as a kind of guarantor. But this would be too much for the elite Sinhala as it would curtail the liberties of some trouble makers.

2. Lisha de Soysa Dec 24
We can actually go to 38 countries visa free ? This is news to me. I thought it is only Singapore and Maldives ( and Seychelles which I learnt from this article). Can somebody tell what are the other 35 countries ?
1. Sadaham Dec 24
Our Foreign Ministry must give priority to secure right to livelihood from India for Sri Lankans married to Indians. India does not allow Sri Lankan spouses of Indians to work in India thereby denying their right as well as their children's right to livelihood. So much for 'excellent relations' between India and Sri Lanka.