Nestled off the southeastern coast of India, Sri Lanka is a beautiful island country. It has long beaches, beautiful greenery and a rich cultural history, making it a popular tourist destination. Sri Lanka has a population of almost 22 million people and the country boasts a relatively low crime rate. Yet, inside Colombo city and across the country, Sri Lanka has many homeless individuals. Though exact numbers of the homeless population in Sri Lanka are unavailable, 1.5 million Sri Lankans do not own land, a factor that certainly impacts homelessness. The homeless inhabit bus shelters and street corners around Colombo city and are often located in rural regions. Homelessness in Sri Lanka remains one of the most visible forms of poverty in the country.
Poverty and Homelessness
Sri Lanka, a country that was traded between colonial powers like the Dutch and the British, only gained its independence in 1948. Agriculture remains the largest industry, employing anywhere from 25% to more than 35% of the entire population, according to varying estimates. In addition, 80% of the population lives in rural areas, making Sri Lanka one of the top five least urbanized countries.
The Sri Lankan Civil War, which lasted from 1983 to 2009, has had a lasting impact on poverty and land ownership in the country. The conflict displaced thousands of Sri Lankans, many of whom still feel the impacts of the war today.
Land is a valuable resource to those who have it, a fact that more than 1.5 million Sri Lankans living and working without land are well aware of. Legally, those who do not own land lack many basic human rights. Without an address, Sri Lankans cannot claim state welfare assistance. They also cannot send their children to school or vote in national and local elections. Restrictions are placed on activities in homes controlled by landlords, largely because landlords do not have a lot of oversight. The homeless in Sri Lanka, especially the elderly, remain the most vulnerable. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated this crisis.
The Good News
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Sri Lankan government officials are ensuring the protection of the homeless living in the capital city of Colombo. When the government implemented a curfew in March 2020, many of the homeless remained living on the streets. With the help of local police, more than 300 homeless individuals living in Colombo have been housed in quarantine shelters with food and basic necessities provided for them. Senior deputy inspector general of police for Western Province, Deshabandu Tennakoon, notes that it is not safe for people to be living on the streets with a respiratory virus circulating the globe.
Homelessness in Sri Lanka is a persistent issue that impacts the country. While the COVID-19 pandemic has prompted more awareness, there is a long way to go to eradicate homelessness. Moving forward, the government of Sri Lanka and other humanitarian organizations must make homelessness in Sri Lanka a priority.
– Alex Pinamang