When Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe conceded ten days ago that the Sri Lankan economy has “completely collapsed”, his words would have come as no surprise to the island’s 22 million people.
With the country enduring its worst economic crisis since independence, authorities continue to scramble for aid from the international community. Families have been forced to skip meals and limit portion sizes. “If we don’t act now,” the United Nations has warned, “many families will be unable to meet their basic food needs.”
In a move to curb dire food shortages, authorities have approved a four-day working week for public sector workers so they can “engage in agricultural activities in their backyards or elsewhere as a solution to the food shortage that is expected”.
Tamil fishers in the north of the island are facing starvation because they lack paraffin to power their boats. Women whose livelihoods depend on occasional work on the boats face even grimmer circumstances. One of them, a 59-year-old Tamil woman who lost five of her children in the civil war, is living off donations, leftover fish and the vegetables she picks from the side of the road.
From July 10, the government will no longer sell fuel to ordinary people because it won’t have enough currency to pay for it. Frustration is palpable across the island. The deployment of the military is only adding to the distress. In one case, Sri Lankan troops opened fire on people queuing for petrol after motorists clashed with troops; four civilians and three soldiers were wounded.
Aid over geopolitical strategy
Sri Lankan authorities are turning to the international community for assistance. An official visit to Russia this week will attempt to secure discounted oil. Much of the world might be slamming Russia over its invasion of Ukraine, but Sri Lanka is no longer in a position to be choosy about who it deals with.
So far this year, India has been Sri Lanka’s main source of assistance. The Indian government has signalled a willingness to go beyond the US$4 billion in loans, swaps and aid to support its neighbour. The political winds seem to be swaying away from China and in India’s favour.
At the Future of Asia conference in Tokyo in May, Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa pleaded for medical, food and fuel donations. But his appeal came at a low point in Sri Lanka–Japanese relations.
Earlier in his presidency, Rajapaksa had cancelled key Japanese-funded infrastructure projects, including a US$1.5 billion light rail project for Colombo and the US$700 million-plus East Container Terminal project at the country’s main port, which Japan, India and Sri Lanka had agreed on before Rajapaksa came to power.
At the Tokyo conference Japan agreed to provide US$1.5 million through the World Food Program for three months’ essential food supplies, but remained tight-lipped about other support.
The United States has announced a series of assistance measures since the crisis set in, including US$120 million in loans to small and medium businesses – which risks adding to the country’s debt crisis – US$27 million to Sri Lanka’s dairy industry and US$5.75 million in humanitarian assistance. At the G7 summit in Madrid last Tuesday, President Joe Biden pledged a further $20 million to feed 800,000 children through a school nutrition program.
A team from the International Monetary Fund, meanwhile, was in Sri Lanka last week to discuss a $3 billion bailout under the fund’s Extended Fund Facility. The scheme is designed to assist countries experiencing serious payment imbalances. While the team said it expected negotiations about the terms of the bailout to reach agreement in the “near term”, it concluded Sri Lanka’s economy “is expected to contract significantly in 2022”.
Sri Lanka also plans to hold a donor conference with India, China and Japan. Around US$5 billion is needed over the next six months to cover the basic needs of its people.
Australia needs to reconsider how it supports its Indian Ocean neighbour
Australia will provide A$50 million to Sri Lanka to meet urgent food and healthcare needs. “Not only do we want to help the people of Sri Lanka in its time of need,” Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong said on June 20, “there are also deeper consequences for the region if this crisis continues.”
But Australia’s priorities are quite different from the concerns of ordinary Sri Lankans. A new Fisheries Monitoring Centre, jointly launched by the Australian and Sri Lankan governments, will install tracking devices on more than 4,000 Sri Lankan fishing vessels, which can be used in the “early identification” of “irregular vessel movements”.
Australia’s priority is “supporting Sri Lanka’s efforts to strengthen its border management capacity”, according to a statement from the Australian high commission in Colombo. The centre continues Australia’s historical disregard for the plight of people seeking asylum outside Sri Lanka.
These are some of the poorest and most persecuted people in the country, fleeing from Vavuniya, Kilinochi, Mullaithivu and Trincomalee and other Tamil-majority areas ravaged by the civil war.
In recent weeks, people escaping Sri Lanka by boat have been intercepted at sea by Australian authorities and returned without adequate assessments of their asylum claims. The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, has previously said that Australia’s “enhanced assessments”, which don’t properly consider individual needs for protection, “potentially place Australia in breach of its obligations under the Refugee Convention and other international law obligations”.
The federal opposition claims boats are arriving in Australia because of the change of government. But people have also been fleeing to other destinations, such as India and the Middle East. Some have relatives in Indian refugee camps; others have family contacts in Tamil Nadu.
As one Tamil activist explains: “There is panic and anxiety about tomorrow.” The exodus could continue for quite some time yet.