For the umpteenth time, Sri Lanka’s passport persistently remains on the lower rungs of global rankings. When results were released earlier in October with Singapore topping the ranks this time around, Sri Lanka scored a rank of 189 out of 199 passports. Our visa-free score (countries where we either get visas on arrival or free visas) has dropped by 4 places since 2016, making the Sri Lankan passport even weaker and more internationally unwelcome than it was just last year.

Nearly all other countries whose passports hold either the same or lower power ranking than Sri Lanka are countries with internal conflict, such as Iran, Sudan, Somalia, Pakistan, Yemen and Afghanistan, among others.

Why?

The Australian government was compelled to issue notices stating that illegal immigrants who arrived by boat (also known as ‘boat people’) will not be granted citizenship. Image courtesy: openborders.info

“Mostly because of the perception other countries have of Sri Lanka,” Deputy Controller General of Immigration and Emigration, Harendra Ratnayake, told Roar Media. “The issue here depends on a lot of things, from bilateral agreements between countries, to how our people behave elsewhere.”

Many countries, he elaborated, perceive Sri Lanka unfavourably because it accounts for a large number of illegal immigrants. For instance, Sri Lankans account for the second highest number of illegal immigrants in Australia, he said.

Ratnayake stressed that the responsibility for a better-ranking passport and ease with visas doesn’t just lie with the government, but with the general public as well. However, neither the ministries nor government agencies involved with foreign relations—including the Ministry of Internal Affairs, Ministry of External Affairs, or the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Board—were able to respond to Roar Media’s queries regarding the processes undertaken to improve where Sri Lanka stands internationally.

What the government is doing, however, is digitising the Sri Lankan passports and bringing the travel document up to international standards.

Introducing e-passports

The Immigration and Emigration Department states that the move towards biometric passports will make the travel document more reliable, thereby facilitating mobility for Sri Lankans. Image courtesy: srilanka.iom.int

Last August, the government approved a proposal put forward by the Immigration and Emigration Department to introduce biometric passports. This will be implemented across the board from 2018 onwards, and the existing ‘N series’ of passports will be phased out. According to Ratnayake, no decision has been made to replace the existing passports—so those will follow the old system, unless a process to replace them is introduced.

“Developed countries have all the biometric details of their people within a chip in the passport, and these aren’t there in ours. This could be a possible reason for the low ranking we have, as there is low security and higher chances of impersonation. We’re almost ready to launch e-passports, with just a bit more work left to do,” he said.

Starting with digital photographs, the Department of Immigration and Emigration is already working towards standardizing Sri Lankan passports. As of 2015, applicants were required to provide digital photos from studios authorised by the department instead of regular ‘passport photos’ used previously. The digital photo, along with the applicant’s fingerprints, will now have to be submitted in person.

Having an e-passport isn’t the solution to stronger passports, but it is a step forward in a highly digitised world. According to Philippe May, Arton Capital’s Managing Director of the Singapore Office, having far-sighted foreign policy, excellent diplomacy and  perceiving globalization as an opportunity is one of the reasons for Singapore to have a top-ranking passport.

May told CNN that he expects “small nations who are no threat to anyone as well as smart and open-minded nations, especially when there is a strong rule of law,” to continue developing the strength of their passports.

He also spoke of a domino effect, where if one country had an issue with another, all their associates would be affected, even to the point of visa restrictions.

Having a weak passport not only highlights the lack of cordial international relations, but also restricts Sri Lankans from travelling overseas. Acquiring visas, be it for business, education, visiting family, or simply going on a vacation is not only expensive, but also extremely difficult. Which brings us back to the question: what specifically is the Sri Lankan government doing to improve the country’s international standing?

Cover courtesy of: discover.passportindex.org