Given the increasing unemployment in their countries, Sri Lankans and Nepalese are now heading for the Russo-Ukrainian war zone in search of work as soldiers in the Russian and Ukrainian armies.

Daily Mirror reported on Friday that nearly 70 former Sri Lankan military personnel, who had been legally discharged from the military, are going to join the International Legion of Territorial Defence of Ukraine, also known as the Ukrainian Foreign Legion.

The paper quoted a former Sri Lankan military official based in Ukraine, to say that these former officers and other ranks from the Lankan army have already travelled to Azerbaijan, Dubai, and India to join Captain Ranish Hewage’s Special Unit. They are waiting to proceed to Ukraine via Poland, the official said.

On Saturday Daily Mirror said that the leader of the Sri Lankan military men Captain Ranish Hewage and two others were killed in operations in Ukraine. Following this, the Sri Lankan government has decided to take all possible steps to prevent Sri Lankans from being recruited for such work through private agents.

Currently, there are more than 20 former Sri Lankan military personnel serving in the Ukrainian Foreign Legion, it was reported.

The main attraction appears to be the good salaries offered. The annual salary offered by the Ukrainian army ranges from the equivalent of Sri Lankan Rupees 1 to 12 million.

Youth unemployment in Sri Lanka is currently 23.8%, while in Nepal it is 20%. Nepal is one of the poorest nations in the world, with about 40% of the population living below the poverty line according to the World Bank.

Both Sri Lanka and Nepal are heavily dependent on foreign remittances to run their economies. In good times, Sri Lanka would get US$ 7 billion as foreign remittances annually. This plunged to US$ 2.8 million in 2021 due to the pandemic. In normal times, Nepal would also get US$ 7 billion in remittances and that accounted for 25% of the country’s GDP.

Current estimates suggest that about 1.7 million Sri Lankans work abroad, with an annual outflow of about 200,000 persons. There are about 3.5 million Nepalis working abroad, mostly in the Middle East, South East Asia and India.

Nepalese soldiers legitimately work for the Indian and British armies as per bilateral agreements. But recruitment to the Indian army is expected to taper off as a result of the “Agnipath” scheme under which soldiers would not be taken on a permanent basis and with a post-retirement pension.

They will be recruited for only four years. At the end of four years, only 25% will be absorbed in the army on a permanent basis. This is unacceptable to the Nepalese government and it has let this be known to the Indian authorities.

With the Indian door shut and the British army not growing, employment opportunities for the Nepalese soldiering communities are shrinking. Hence the move to find work in the Russian army.

While it is unlikely that the government of Sri Lanka will object to its former military personnel working for foreign armies (the Sri Lankan government is actually encouraging people to seek foreign employment even giving its qualified personnel leave without pay to go abroad for employment) the Nepalese government has opposed the recruitment of Nepalese by the Russian army.

Nepal largely prohibits its citizens from joining foreign armies other than the Indian and British armies that are governed by bilateral treaties.

Dozen people in Nepal who were accused of smuggling young men into Russia's army have been arrested. According to Kathmandu Post Nepal has asked Russia to return Nepali mercenaries after six of them died in fighting in Ukraine.

The smugglers allegedly charged each man up to US$ 9,000 to take them in on tourist visas, the paper said. It is not known as to how many Nepalese serve in Russia's army, but it's estimated to be at least in hundreds. Nepal's ambassador to Russia said that around 150-200 Nepali nationals have been fighting for Russia. The BBC reports that Nepalese are still flying to Russia to join the army.

Several have been injured from fighting in the war and are getting treatment in Russian hospitals.

Russia has been actively seeking to boost the number of its troops as its war with Ukraine grinds on. It has reportedly recruited mercenaries from countries like Georgia, Syria and Libya, the BBC said.

There was "no proof" that Russia was directly involved in the recruitment of Nepali mercenaries, Nepali police told media on Thursday. But the Himalayan nation has officially written to Moscow to stop the use of Nepali soldiers. It has also summoned the Russian ambassador in Nepal to reiterate Kathmandu's position.

In June this year, BBC reported that many young Nepalis had gone to Russia on student and work visas, and then joined the Russian army to earn some money - with the eventual aim of obtaining Russian citizenship.

Citing an unnamed government spokesperson, the Ukrainian news outlet Kyiv Post reported this week that there were also an unknown number of Nepalis fighting with Ukrainian forces.