Australia/Sri Lanka : Untangling The Knotty Issue Of Human Smuggling

AUSTRALIA/SRI LANKA: Untangling the Knotty Issue of Human Smuggling

By Amantha Perera

COLOMBO, Nov 13 (IPS) – It is a story that spans three islands, across the breadth of the Indian Ocean. That is, of hundreds of boat people sailing the rough seas in unseaworthy vessels, risking life and limb in their desperate attempt at a new lease of life.

Their journey begins from Sri Lanka, only to switch boats in Indonesia and use the South-east Asian country as staging point to their target final destinationAustralia. Once apprehended by authorities, some find themselves back in Indonesian waters, awaiting their fate.

More than 300 remain on board two boats that have been moored in Indonesian waters since early Octoberone boat has been marooned for six weeks, the other about four weeks.

The saga of the boat people, especially after over 10 went who went missing were presumed dead when their boat sank off the north western coast Australia on Nov. 3, has undermined the popularity of the Kevin Rudd government in Australia. Like the journey of the boat people, the damage control measures also span the ocean.

Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smiths trip to Sri Lanka on Nov. 9, along with top immigration officials, was clearly born out of concerns to seek out ways to stem the rising wave of human trafficking originating from Sri Lanka and ending in Australiaor more to the point, stop people trying to get to Australian territory illegally.

In the last two months two boats have been detected in Indonesian waters and escorted to an Indonesian harbour. Another, also with Sri Lankans onboard, sank in the seas northwest of Australia. At least 10 are still missing while 27 were taken to Christmas Island in Australia.

“We face a heightened challenge from the syndicates behind people smuggling,” Smith said in Colombo, where he held high-level discussions with Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa, Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama, and the ministers for law and justice and human rights during his brief stay. The two countries agreed to set up a joint ministerial-level commission to oversee progress in curbing trafficking.

“People smuggling remains a high-priority transnational issue for source, transit and destination countries in our region. It presents a threat to the integrity of border security processes and procedures,” the two ministers said in a joint statement at the conclusion of the Smith visit. “We note that people smugglers and people smuggling syndicates work without regard for human safety or national legal frameworks.”

Smith and Bogollagama added that enhanced cooperation would be directed at prosecution, disruption of trafficking routes and measures and information sharing, but details of the joint action were not made available.

The Sri Lankans have consistently maintained that the smuggling syndicates are part of the international network maintained by the now defunct Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which fought a bloody two-and-half decade-old separatist war till just five months back. “Sri Lankas stand has always been that people smuggling is part of the terrorist activities associated with the LTTE,” Bogollagama said.

In fact, the Sri Lankan authorities have already informed the Indonesia and Australia that one of the passengers on board the Oceanic Viking, a boat with 250 Sri Lankans that has remained at the Merak harbour in Banten Province, Indonesia, was a known peoples smuggler.

“Kulaendrarajah Sanjeev alias Alex once belonged to Kannan Gang involved in street fights and was deported from Canada in 2003 after being arrested for trouble making,” the Sri Lankan Foreign Ministry said in a statement released on Nov. 6.

“Alex had been involved in human smuggling for a long time and it is believed that his office is based in India. His brother, who is now in Canada, is also involved in human smuggling.”

In a related development, explosive residue was found on two clothing items discovered among passengers on a boat with 76 illegal Sri Lankan immigrants, which was seized by Canadian authorities off Vancouver Island earlier in October. The ships identity has also come into question with reports indicating that it may have been part of a fleet used by the LTTE for gunrunning.

Sri Lankans are wary of overseas groups trying to revive the LTTE that was completely wiped out in Sri Lanka with the deaths of its top leadership during battles with the government forces in May. “We know that the LTTE is trying to regroup overseas and we are taking measures,” Bogollagama said.

The Sri Lankan Foreign Minister said that he hoped “the government of Australia will remain vigilant and mindful in this regard,” referring to attempts to revive the Tigers as a group based outside Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka has been campaigning vigorously in bilateral and multilateral fora against such a revival since the end of the war. The LTTE, which is banned in India, the U.S. and Canada among other countries, is not outlawed in Australia. Smith did not indicate that such a ban was likely in the near future.

Australia also faces another problemwhat to do with the more than 300 Sri Lankans remaining on the two boats anchored in Indonesian waters in hopes of landing on Australian territory and refusing to come offshore in Indonesia a message they have conveyed in no uncertain terms in a letter they handed to the media. Indonesia has given Australia until the end of this week to decide on the status of the boat passengers.

“They should leave the boat and they would be processed under Indonesian law,” Smith said of the option that had been suggested to the asylum seekers. But there have been no takers among the marooned asylum seekers.

Sri Lankan authorities said that it was difficult for boats carrying human cargo to leave the eastern coast of Sri Lanka undetected. A heavy naval dragnet, including deep-sea vessels, has been in place off the eastern and southeastern waters of Sri Lanka since more than two years ago to prevent arms smuggling by the Tigers.

“Even the local fishermen have passes, and when they reach fishing marshalling points, which are manned by the navy, they have to produce these passes. Our job is to protect incoming and outgoing vessels and to monitor everything that passes through our seas, and thats what we do,” Navy spokesperson Athula Senarath told the national media on Nov. 4 in Sri Lanka following reports in Australia that the boats were originating from eastern Sri Lanka.

Some of the marooned passengers have revealed that they got on the boat to Australia after reaching Indonesia from Sri Lanka.

Smith admitted that if the authorities were to deal with the smuggling networks effectively, it would need a combined effort spanning across oceans. “This is not a challenge the Australian or the Sri Lankan (governments) can meet by themselves,” he said.

A meeting of the over 50 countries who are signatories to the Bali Processa regional and multilateral initiative designed to boost bilateral and regional efforts to prevent people smuggling and traffickingwill be held in Australia early next year to map out a regional strategy, Smith announced.

For the time being, though, the first question that needs answers is what to do with the passengers refusing to come ashore in Merak, Indonesia. That is a question that only the Rudd administration can answer.

On Nov. 11 it gave them an optionget off the boat; those registered as refugees will be processed immediately and resettled within six weeks, and others will go through the process within 12 weeksthe catch being they have to come ashore in Indonesia for the asylum process to begin.

Twenty people have come forward to avail themselves of this option. Yet the saga continues.