Dual Nationality - core issue of the day
by Dr. Tilak S. Fernando reporting from Colombo
Passport in any language is an official document for travel purposes. However, in the present political and social scenario in the world, one cannot obtain a passport of any country unless one is a citizen of that country. Delving into our own past, Sri Lankan history enlightens us that those who travelled to the West in the early days were children from the upper crust elite in Sri Lanka for educational purposes. Once they completed their course of studies they gracefully returned back to become eminent lawyers, politicians, government ministers, prime ministers, Executive Presidents and professionals of various disciplines to work for their country.
Subsequent to that era, students from the middle classes followed suit. Out of these, certain percentage took up jobs abroad and decided to stay over which created the initial foundation towards immigration. There were also a handful of professionals who officially migrated to the UK on open-ended work permits.
Nearly three decades ago those who had continuously lived in the UK for three years, (later five) were 'given leave to remain in the UK indefinitely'- which, in other words, was Permanent Residency. There was no compulsion for them to seek British citizenship as they could live in the UK on their Sri Lankan passports.
During the 1970s, Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike, as Prime Minister, made a statutory demand on the Sri Lankan expatriates living abroad to remit five per cent of their salaries back to the mother country, thus driving the first sharp psychological wedge through Sri Lankans living abroad.
Coinciding with this state of unpleasant affairs, the British government gave an ultimate option to 'immigrants' who enjoyed the PR status to apply for British citizenship. With such changes taking place in the British Immigration Act, those Sri Lankans in the UK with PR became wedged between devil and the deep blue sea situation because to obtain the British nationality they had to give up their Sri Lankan identity, and without the PR or British nationality they could not live in the country permanently!
The ultimate result was that many who were caught up in this awkward situation sought British nationality either to safeguard their employment, permanent residency and to have easy access to travel to and from the UK on a British passport.
In 1988 Sri Lanka ratified the Dual Nationality Bill in Parliament. Those who had 'professional qualifications and who could prove their contribution to their native country became eligible to apply for dual nationality for a nominal fee of Rs. 5,000.
However, the late General Sepala Attygalle, Secretary to the Ministry of Defence once and Sri Lanka High Commissioner in the UK subsequently, mislead the late President R. Premadasa with a notion that 'Sri Lankan community in the UK was an affluent and privileged lot who did not much care or do anything for their mother country'! The result was that a gazette notification over-night increased the dual nationality fee by 2000 per cent to Rs. 100,000 for single applicant and Rs. 125,000 for a family. The late Lalith Athulathmudali, who was the Foreign Minister at the time, perturbed by such a short sighted policy called the President's impractical action as 'killing the goose that lays the golden egg.'
President Chandrika Kumaratunga during her tenure in office increased this fee further to Rs. 200,000 and Rs. 225,000 respectively. Sri Lankan expatriates were enthusiastic about the new Sri Lankan immigration law that paved the way for them to resume their lost Sri Lankan identity but having to pay such an exorbitant amount as an official fee to re-gain their 'legitimate birthright' stood as a stumbling block.
Whenever the dual nationality issue became the focal point of conversation many arguments have surfaced for and against it. During such debates some have at times pointed a finger at the expatriate community living abroad and made blanket statements such as: "It takes a while for a person to realise that he should be back home. Most of the people, who live abroad on any reason, cannot drop that relative personal and economic freedom and come back forever. They are practically lost to Sri Lanka".
This theory, in fact, is groundless. The writer who has lived in the UK for over two decades and intermingled with many Sri Lankans and Sri Lankan Associations could endorse the feeling of those who are unable to respond individually for such accusations that 99 per cent of Sri Lankan community, especially the Sinhalese, who live in a foreign land lives every moment of the day in Sri Lanka mentally, despite their creature comforts they may enjoy!
The modern technology has turned the whole world into a small village today. In that respect Sri Lanka is only a minute a way from any part of the world, thanks to cheaper and sophisticated telecommunication facilities along with TV, Internet, e-mail, MSN and Yahoo messenger services etc.
As a matter of fact, expatriate communities are well informed and are very much on the ball today and are aware of all the activities that take place at home, sometimes even quicker than most of the home audiences.
The invaluable contribution made by the Sri Lankan expatriates in the UK and from various other foreign lands, particularly the Sinhala diaspora, through their determined efforts, tireless dedication and substantial charitable donations both in financial measures and hospital and medical equipment to help their Sri Lankan brothers and sisters at home are living proofs of the attachment and the love expatriates have shown in the past.
Until President Mahinda Rajapaksa took a serious view on the damage caused to our national image by the LTTE, pro-LTTE websites, their supportive INGOs, NGOs and the SLMM, and set up an official Media Centre for National Security, under the Ministry of Defence, Public Security, Law and Order, the bulk of that responsibility was shouldered by the expatriate Sinhala diaspora from the UK, Australia and New York mainly.
In that sense phraseology used by some Sri Lankans at home to condemn the Sri Lankan expatriates as, 'they are practically lost to Sri Lanka' would be highly inappropriate and offensive to all those who have been working hammer and tongs with commendable fortitude to counter and preserve the good name of their country.
However, there's no smoke without fire. True, there are always rotten apples from the core in any society who would fall into the category of those who criticise the expatriates in saying: 'They cannot drop that relative personal and economic freedom and come back forever'. To this category one could include some of the government servants who were sent on a tour of duty abroad from the Foreign Ministry, ranging from administrative to diplomatic officers and even high ranking senior diplomats of High Commissioner calibre with young families particularly.
Taking UK as a direct example, these officials once they arrived in London with young and teenage children had to be admitted to various seats of learning to continue with their studies and found at the end of their three year term, their children either studying for GCE O/L, Advanced Levels or even half way through University degrees!
Naturally no parent would like to just abandon their children or to disrupt a British education in the middle of their studies and return back thus jeopardising their future! Having got used to a different affluent lifestyle, as opposed to what they have been used to prior to their new surroundings, is just another matter, which also has contributed to these officers' inability to drop that 'relative and personal economic freedom'.
The past records will only reveal that many such officers, even the high ranking top diplomatic elite, have chosen to disregard their commitments, Official Bonds and have sought menial jobs which were far below their standard just to stay put in their greener pastures.
In doing so they have not only siphoned off government coffers to bring their families to foreign lands, drawn vast amounts of money on housing and entertainment allowances and other diplomatic perks and later quit the Service abandoning their pension rights which was the only severe penalty that the Government could have been able to impose on them up to now! That does not mean that every other patriotic expatriate should be measured with the same yardstick!
Of course, Sri Lanka has produced the cream of intellectuals, professionals, scientists, medical men and women who would be an asset to mother country, but the unfortunate factor is that the Think-Tanks of all the past Administrations in Sri Lanka have been blinded by misconception and not looking beyond their nose, as it were, which has so far been ' Sri Lanka's loss and other country's' gain!'
Today it is a different scenario. Sri Lanka needs its full quota of foreign exchange. How does she obtain this? Surely not by having to depend entirely on the hard sweat of a certain section of the society who make their way to various middle eastern countries, France, Singapore, Malaysia, Korea or Italy as housemaids and other domestic employees and also focusing on random collections of Rs. 200,000 by throwing a dual nationality tool at those who want to return home to give their services.
At a time when foreign currency is appreciating to unprecedented levels, the monetary factor does not enter the equation in the minds of expatriates, but the morale and the principle behind in forcing them to buy back their own birthright is what appears to count and hurt.
Also, nowadays there is an older generation of Sri Lankan expatriates who have settled their children and enjoying their retirement confined to brick walls and television sets. Many draw sterling pensions and would like to return to their roots and settle down by investing in house and property in Sri Lanka that can amount to millions of Rupees.
If this category is allowed to get back to their roots naturally they will get their pensions drawn in foreign exchange on a regular monthly basis, which in itself is a foreign exchange boom to the country for the benefit of all Sri Lankans. When a country is rich it goes without saying that her people too will be richer.
Then there are different categories of expatriates who come under the banner of professionals in many a field and well established entrepreneurs with solid business acumen who are eager to get back, settle down and make substantial contributions to the Sri Lankan industry, economy and society as a whole, but unfortunately at times the resident visa barrier for those with clear proof as descendants from Sri Lankan parents with valid certificates of birth is seen as a deterrent.
Today one is able to obtain the dual nationality by paying Rs. 200,000 showing one's educational qualifications, sufficient funds and who are able to satisfy stringent conditions laid down by the Department of Immigration and Emigration. A special panel sits and decides on a monthly basis who could be accepted back to the country as a child of mother Lanka.
President Rajapaksa who is so keen and serious in his attempts with his new 'Mahinda Chintana' and no nonsense attitude in changing the centuries old infrastructure and to develop this land and bring back to its original status of a paradise has already made an appeal to the expatriate Sri Lankan community to come back and help build the nation so that everyone could once again live in peace, harmony and prosperity as a single family.
In such a scenario it would be up to the modern Think Tanks of the present Government to review this issue seriously and make it easy for every expatriate to get back to their roots, but unfortunately many who are anxious to return home are throttled with an unpleasant noose in terms of an exorbitant dual nationality fee and supplementary conditions, errant bureaucracy etc.
For the benefit of the country and all those who are deterred by the complex nature of this topic the writer's personal view point to overcome this obstacle would be to either reduce this so called Nationality fee or make applicants remit that money equivalent in foreign exchange to their respective NRFC accounts with a condition that such remittances should be in applicants' account for a specific period determined by the State. This move will naturally be mutually beneficial, both to applicants as well as the State.
It's very unfortunate that foreigners are allowed to buy our good land and property, allowing them to manipulate our real estate market to sky rocket levels and settle down willy nilly just by bringing in some foreign exchange, which are a pittance to them when converted to Sri Lankan Rupees while the very sons and daughters of Lanka are given a thundering slap simultaneously just because they are 'legally' considered foreigners!
It is hoped that President Rajapaksa's attention will be drawn to this issue and help the yearning expatriates to come back to their roots and build our nation once more, even at this late stage, not only with their riches in foreign exchange they bring but also by channelling back the brain drain to the country that has been taking place on roller coasters for the last few decades