Lanka moves to curb human
smuggling By Amantha Perera
COLOMBO - If you hold a Pakistani or
Afghan passport, be prepared for an unusually
lengthy immigration process on entering Sri Lanka.
Immigration authorities in the island tell IPS
they have set up special procedures to check
passengers from these two countries. This is after
increasing evidence that this South Asian island
country off the southern tip of India is being
used as a departure point by illegal foreign
asylum seekers taking boats to other destinations,
mostly to Australia.
"We have special
security measures to question Afghans and
Pakistanis," said Prabath Aluthge, head of counter
trafficking at the Department of Immigration.
Addressing a meeting on trafficking and
human smuggling at the Sri Lanka Press Institute
last week he revealed that 25 Afghan passport
holders were deported recently, while in the past five
months 250 visa violators
have been deported. Foreigners using fake Sri
Lankan passports to gain entry and asylum have
been rare, but not unheard of. Several among the
970 persons deported to Sri Lanka from Britain
since 2009 were found on return to be Indians, and
were sent back to India.
The current trend
with hundreds using the island as a staging point
is a new development, local law enforcement
officials tell IPS. On June 21, a boat carrying
around 200 Afghan and Iranian asylum seekers
capsized off Christmas Island, about 2,600
kilometers from the Australian mainland. About 90
of the passengers died. The boat is suspected to
have originated from Sri Lanka, though direct
journeys from the South Asian island to Australia,
more than 8,000 km away, have been rare.
In the past, many illegal asylum seekers
used Thailand and Indonesia as transit points.
That seems to have changed. "Sri Lanka has been
identified as a transit point" used by human
smugglers, Aluthge said. The increasing incidents
of foreigners using Sri Lanka to get on boats
comes at a time when national security authorities
have reported a spike in the number of locals
taking the same risky route.
have made a string of detections in the past few
months. On May 12, 113 persons were arrested in
capital Colombo while being transported to a
fisheries harbor to get on a boat. A month later
the Navy arrested 53 people on a boat about 60
nautical miles off the coast. Smaller groups have
been caught in between. Early last week a group of
five was arrested near the southern city
"These days we are recording
high instances of human smuggling activity,"
police spokesperson Ajith Rohana said. "Ninety
percent of the asylum seekers are from the
[minority] Tamil and Muslim communities." So, he
said, were the main organizers of the boats.
Australian immigration officials have refused to
divulge details of the number of boats that
originated from Sri Lanka this year, citing
security concerns. But publicly available
information suggests that by the end of June this
year, 72 boats were detected or reached Australia.
There were 5,242 arrivals.
detention statistics released by the Australian
Department of Immigration and Citizenship show
that by end May there were 682 persons of Sri
Lankan origin at detention facilities, making 14%
of a total of 4,906. The largest was Afghans who
made up 41%. Sri Lankans made the second-largest
The Australian data also reveals an
unusual rise of asylum seekers arriving by sea
starting from January 2010. The number of persons
at immigration detention centers, which was fewer
than 500 in January 2009, rose to over 6,500 by
January 2011. Sri Lanka's long-running civil war
ended in May 2009.
According to Rohana,
the most common modus operandi is for those
expecting to take boats to wait in small numbers,
around five to six to a group, near the coast.
They would then be transferred in batches to a
fishing harbor and most likely taken to a fishing
trawler anchored out at sea. Rohana says locals
who have been arrested for organizing such boats
appear to be middlemen between those seeking a
place on the boats and those controlling the
"The core suspects
have been found to be operating from countries
like England, Europe and Australia," he said. The
police officer cited the case of more than 200 Sri
Lankans who found themselves stranded in the West
African state Togo in October 2011 after being
abandoned by smugglers who had promised passage to
Canada. "The four main suspects in that case are
in France," Rohana said. The victims had been
moved to the African state by air through Mumbai
and Addis Ababa in Ethiopia using genuine visit
Details of how people get on to a
boat remain sketchy. Most who wait for an
opportunity or have failed in their attempts
remain silent. Take the case of Akilan (name
changed on request), a youth in his twenties from
the eastern coast, now languishing in jail after a
failed attempt at sailing to Australia.
"We did not know anything until he was
arrested," his mother tells IPS. She said her son
was planning to sit for his university entrance
exam for the third time, but had been working
secretly for his clandestine trip.
have been detected originating from the
north-western Puttalam coast all the way to
eastern fishing ports like Valechchennei. The
boats used are mostly wooden hulled fishing
trawlers. The asylum seekers have to pay an
equivalent of around US$9,000 in local currency in
two instalments. According to police information,
they are asked to pay $2,500 before they get on
board. Family members and friends pay the rest
when - and if - they are dropped off at the
Akilan's mother is not sure
whether he would resist the temptation of another
go. "He wanted to go because we are poor and
desperate, and we are still poor and desperate."