The People Smugglers (Apr 1996)

Originally Published on: Apr 29, 1996

The people smugglers

Kaihla, Paul
Maclean's. Toronto
Apr 29, 1996. Vol. 109, Iss. 18; pg. 16, 5 pgs

The fierce African sun was breaking over the vast plain as a small convoy of Jeeps and trucks wound its way past mud huts and redbrick farmhouses with roofs of corrugated metal. Two dozen-odd members of Kenya's immigration enforcement unit and the national police's elite special forces were bearing in on a four-room house in Kiambu, a dusty village in Kenya's coffee belt, near the capital city of Nairobi. The fatigue-clad men were equipped for a minor war. Sharpshooters took up positions around the house. Then a squad of burly officers, brandishing Uzi machine-guns, stormed the front door. Inside, the officers discovered five terrified foreigners sleeping on dirty mattresses in a tiny room. The weary host, emerging from the master bedroom with his hands raised, was a well-groomed man with a cold stare–a Canadian citizen who was born in Sri Lanka as Satkunarasan Satkunasingam, but now known to friends and foes alike simply as Rajan.

The raid last month on the ramshackle house in an obscure Third World village had, improbably, exposed one link in an elaborate international network that has moved tens of thousands of illegal migrants from the island nation of Sri Lanka to Europe and Canada. In fact, Rajan, the mastermind of the cell broken up by the Kenyans, is just one of thousands of operators who make up a new breed of modern global outlaws. They use the same techniques and ethics as international drug traffickers, but their cargo is far more precious: human beings.

As the world turns, any number of human traffickers are shipping clients along circuitous routes in planes, trains, boats and cars to the economic citadels of North America, Western Europe and East Asia. The numbers are undocumented, but experts say that smugglers will move as many as four million illegal migrants from poor to rich countries this year. And Canada, along with the United States and Germany, is a prime destination. After arriving in the target country, the smugglers' desperate clients claim refugee status or go underground and take menial jobs. In the worst cases, they become indentured servants to the smugglers, often working as prostitutes. Some die on the way. For that privilege, the migrants hand over entire family fortunes–up to $70,000 for each body smuggled–because of a stark reality: a peasant in the Third World can increase his yearly earnings by up to 20 times simply by crossing afew borders. “What the public does not realize,” says Edward McCabe, one of the U.S. immigration and naturalization service's top experts in alien smuggling, “is that right now there are tens of thousands of people on the move around the world trying to get into Canada or the United States, and millions and millions of dollars are being made.”

Billions, actually, according to Jonas Widgren, a former UN official who heads the Vienna-based International Centre for Migration Policy Development, an independent think-tank funded by eight European governments. According to a study that Widgren presented to an international conference on migration in Geneva in 1994, the smugglers are enriching themselves by as much as $9.5 billion a year. That is more than twice the annual earnings of the notorious Medellin cocaine cartel at the heady peak of its power. For the smugglers, they jet-set between five-star hotels and exotic metropolises, all the while tarnishing the image of hundreds of thousands of legitimate immigrants and refugees with their illicit activities.

The itinerant gangsters are constantly testing the globe for weaknesses, directing their human cargo along routes that shift according to the nuances of bilateral visa treaties, and gaps in airport and border security. To them, borders are mere inconveniences to be circumvented with lies, bribery or forged passports. “One week, you'll have a group of Chinese coming through Venezuela because the traffickers have bribed someone at an airline check-in counter,” says Cpl. Fred Bowen, a veteran alien smuggling investigator with the RCMP in Toronto. “But authorities will clamp down there and the next week you'll find the same group trying to bring a load in through Norway. It's unreal.”

The world trade in humans has skyrocketed in the past decade. According to Widgren, global revenues from alien smuggling were about $2.6 billion five years ago, and have roughly tripled since then. The United Nations estimates that there are about 125 million migrants throughout the world–and Widgren says that as many as 15 million of them were transported to their present countries by professional smugglers. According to Bowen, the number of alien smugglers bringing people to Canada has increased tenfold during the past decade. In Toronto alone, the RCMP has identified 50 major traffickers, each of whom is importing 100 clients annually. In addition to Canada's high standard of living, a large multiracial population and generous social benefits make the country an attractive destination. But more important, says Widgren, is the perception among smugglers and their clients that Canada is easy to infiltrate.

Most of the irregular migrants apply for refugee status once they reach Canada. The country's acceptance rate of refugees is much higher than that of almost all other developed nations–70 per cent, compared with 17 per cent for the United States and seven per cent in Germany. (At the low end, Finland's is 0.26 per cent.) Says Widgren: “The Canadian asylum system has been, in comparison with the American and European ones, much too liberal.”

Of the 320,000 refugees that Canada accepted between 1983 and 1995, according to Bowen and even some immigration department officials, 90 per cent contracted smugglers. The U.S. immigration service's McCabe says the figure is even higher. During the past two months in Montreal alone, three loads of smuggled migrants have arrived by air: nine Sri Lankans via Brazil; another flight with more than 50 Chileans; and a small plane carrying 16 Chinese nationals, which had taken off from Buenos Aires and refuelled in the Caribbean. All the arrivals–except for two who jumped over the airport fence–made refugee claims. Declares Bowen: “It's an epidemic.”

If it is an epidemic now, some experts foresee a plague in the future. Thomas Homer-Dixon, director of the University of Toronto's Peace and Conflict Studies program, argues that organized illegal immigration will emerge as one of the major issues facing Western governments in the next century. He and other experts cite projections showing that the world's population will almost double by the year 2030. Ninety-five per cent of that growth will take place in poor countries that are already producing migrants and, they say, are likely to experience widespread turmoil as rival groups fight over increasingly strained resources.

In the United States, President Bill Clinton has already given the issue top priority. His administration has increased the immigration service's budget by 72 per cent to $3.5 billion since 1993. And last year, Clinton appointed a task force composed of immigration service, FBI, CIA and drug enforcement officials to combat alien smuggling. “We think this is a very big problem both in terms of numbers and human harm,” said Robert Bach, an associate commissioner with the immigration service, in an interview in his Washington office. “It's a threat to our borders and to our national security.”

While illegal migrants move across the world using a variety of ploys, Rajan's career provides a fascinating glimpse into the intriguing underworld of highly organized and highly profitable alien smuggling. It begins with one of the bigger figures in that racket, 40-year-old Nagaratnam Thavayogarajah. Born to a poor farming family among Sri Lanka's minority Tamil population, he is known as Thavam to friends and family and is invariably described as brilliant despite having only completed primary school. His early poverty led to an obsession for fine clothes, five-star hotels and cars (he keeps up to eight at a home in Nairobi). “Thavam will not help anybody unless he can make money out of it,” a former employee in his alien smuggling business told Maclean's in Sri Lanka's capital, Colombo. “He is a multimillionaire in any currency.”

Thavam left Sri Lanka in 1978 and made a successful refugee claim in what was then West Germany. Working there as a mechanic, he became a popular figure in the tiny Sri Lankan community and made his first connections in the nascent alien smuggling business. In late 1985, he returned to Sri Lanka and took a job as a ticketing agent with a Colombo travel agency. That was two years after the outbreak of Sri Lanka's devastating civil war, in which Tamil guerrilla groups–led by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam–have fought for independence from the country's Sinhalese majority. Capitalizing on the turmoil, Thavam began smuggling middle-class Tamils to Western countries through Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines. Among his early clients were his immediate family: according to a former associate, he smuggled his parents and 10 siblings to England, one sibling to Germany and another to Canada. A brother lives in Toronto.

In 1987, according to members of Thavam's family, Thavam recruited Rajan to oversee his fast-growing syndicate's African and Canadian operations. It was the same year that Canada granted landed immigrant status to Rajan, who turns 37 next month. Like Thavam, Rajan is a Tamil who grew up in a modest home with big ambitions. Raised by a railway station manager and a schoolteacher in Sri Lanka, Rajan went to West Germany as a refugee in the early 1980s. “He always had it in his mind to go abroad, live high and have a lot of girls,” says a former classmate now living in Toronto.

On Nov. 1, 1985, Rajan applied for refugee status in Canada. Shortly after his claim was approved two years later, he sponsored a younger brother and his father to come to Canada. In turn, Rajan's father sponsored another son and a daughter. Rajan's mother, a second sister and two brothers-in-law also now live in Canada, but it is not clear how they entered the country. According to the former classmate, many of Rajan's family members live in subsidized apartments in public housing projects in Toronto. Rajan did not respond to written requests for an interview that a Maclean's reporter left at his parents' unit, his official address.

In 1988, Thavam opened Paris Travels & Tours Ltd., a travel agency in Colombo that former clients, associates and Sri Lankan authorities say is a front for alien smuggling. At that time, Thavam and his sub-agents charged clients about $6,000 for passage to the West. Like other smugglers, Thavam and Rajan supplied their clients with phoney passports, visas and resident papers from counterfeiters, the most skilful of whom are based in Manila, Hong Kong, Singapore and India. The purpose of the fake travel documents is to trick agents at airline check-in counters. Passengers cannot usually board international flights without producing identification that shows they have a right to travel to their country of destination. Airlines that board travellers without valid documents are routinely fined by Canada and other countries.

The vast majority of migrants who are smuggled to Canada are counselled by smugglers to make phoney refugee claims, often under false names. A tip sheet found in 1990 in the luggage of a Tamil, possibly a client of Thavam's, is typical. “You must tell them lies in such a way that [the Canadian immigration officer] must be able to believe you,” it says. It advises clients to claim that their house was destroyed, and that they were arrested by the army and beaten. “Just give them some date,” the paper concludes. “When the officer asks you this, tell them as if you are telling them a real sad story which has happened.”

According to the RCMP, many Tamil migrants who come to Toronto arrive via the United States. Typically, smugglers provide them with doctored Canadian passports that give them the right toenter the United States without a visa. The Tamils clear U.S. immigration by claiming that they live in Canada, and intend to visit the United States for a few days before returning home. Instead, an escort collects the phoney travel documents once the clients clear immigration, and recycles them for the next load of clients. The passengers then travel directly to Buffalo, N.Y., and make a refugee claim at one of four nearby Canadian border stations. The smugglers direct the clients to two establishments in Buffalo–the Red Carpet Inn and a church-funded hostel called Vive La Casa–where the claimants wait for their hearings. Vive La Casa's records show that last year the charity provided shelter to 237 Sri Lankans and 679 Somalis who made refugee claims in Canada. On any given day, 20 to 40 Tamils can be found at the Red Carpet Inn awaiting hearings.

But the Buffalo route was not the one used by Suri, who asked that his full name not be used, when Thavam smuggled him to Canada in 1990. Suri, 26, says that he and four other Tamils, all of whom are now landed immigrants and living in Toronto, paid Thavam $12,000 each for his services. Suri says that Thavam arranged for him to fly from Colombo to Malawi via Singapore. In Malawi, Suri's group was hosted by agents of Thavam who were in the process of smuggling 15 other Tamils to Germany. Next, the smuggling network sent Suri and his four companions to Nairobi, where they met 35 more clients of Paris Travels awaiting passage to the West. On the final leg, Suri's group flew to Moscow and boarded a charter flight to Cuba with a refuelling stop in Gander, Nfld., which is where the Tamils made their refugee claims. Suri told immigration officers that Sri Lankan police had jailed and beaten him three months earlier.

At the time of Suri's trip, Rajan's role in Thavam's organization was to shepherd clients through Africa, and procure false travel documents for them. According to Suri, Rajan pasted forged Canadian visitors' visas into each of the Sri Lankan passports carried by the members of his group. “I know the visa was counterfeit because he was the one who signed it,” says Suri.

Two years later, Zambian authorities arrested Rajan when he was caught at Lusaka's airport with 160 forged travel documents in his luggage. The material included nine Canadian passports, four Canadian citizenship certificates, 12 Canadian visitors' visas, 26 British entry certificates, 10 French visas, 10 German permanent residence visas, 39 Malaysian passports and 50 Singaporean passports–all of which were counterfeit. Rajan told police that he received the papers from a “Mr. Babu” in Madras, India, which is the centre of that country's 50-million-strong Tamil community. Rajan's itinerary showed him flying from Colombo to Madras, Bombay, Nairobi and Lusaka, and then back to Nairobi and Bombay in the space of a few days. A Zambian court convicted Rajan of a minor immigration offence, and handed him a suspended sentence of 12 months' hard labor. He was deported to Canada.

Thavam has had brushes with the law, but escaped serious punishment each time. In 1987, Singaporean police jailed him for a month when he was caught with a large number of legal Singaporean passports he had apparently purchased from poor residents for more than $1,000 each in order to smuggle Tamils through the country. According to Sri Lankan investigators, Thavam was deported to Sri Lanka and permanently banned from entering Singapore, although, the investigators say, he has done so many times since then using false identification.

But most noteworthy was Thavam's detention in Colombo in 1988 after 17 would-be Tamil refugees were halted at the capital's airport and named him to authorities as the man responsible. By that time, Thavam was a rich man. According to former clients, Sri Lankan intelligence sources and a former guerrilla leader now in mainstream politics, Thavam has made large donations to the Tigers, and two former rebel groups that have since won spots in parliament. And according to a relative of Thavam's who requested anonymity, Thavam escaped conviction in 1988 by paying a $20,000 bribe to a senior police official.

Sri Lankan intelligence officials say that Thavam now owns retail businesses in Colombo, London and Paris, and holds bank accounts in those cities as well as in Switzerland, Holland, Kenya, Singapore, Malaysia and India. In addition to his Nairobi residence, he owns two houses in Colombo and several properties registered in the names of relatives. “He has lots of ladies, too,” says Suri.

At some point during the early 1990s, Thavam and Rajan entered into a bitter rivalry. Since then, Rajan has maintained Nairobi as his smuggling base–and an interest in a restaurant in the Kenyan capital called the Zam Zam. Two of Rajan's clients say that the men became enemies after a personal dispute involving a woman. Others say the fight was over money. Associates say that Thavam feared that Rajan and two other men were planning to kill him in Nairobi earlier this year. According to a relative in Colombo, Thavam gave a Mercedes-Benz to a senior Kenyan immigration official, and paid smaller bribes to three junior ones, in order to have Rajan deported. Days after the raid in the village of Kiambu last month, Kenyan authorities sent Rajan to Canada, and deported the five Tamils he was apparently smuggling back to Sri Lanka. Rajan is currently staying with friends and relatives in Toronto, and according to a community source is being hunted by thugs sent by Thavam.

According to Sri Lankan intelligence and other sources, Thavam, Rajan and their partners have smuggled up to 5,000 people to the West during the past decade or so. The last known group smuggled by Thavam consisted of six Tamils he sent to England last month. Suri estimates that Rajan personally smuggled about 250 Tamils to Canada. A former client of Rajan, who is now a refugee claimant in Holland, says that the man abandoned him and his girlfriend in Nairobi after they paid him more than $20,000 to get to Europe. “People shouldn't be deceived by Rajan any more,” the man said in a telephone interview. “He shouldn't be able to take their money.”

The gangs that traffic in humans are almost always organized along ethnic lines, and Tamils are by no means the only smugglers bringing illegal aliens to Canada. According to the RCMP's Bowen and other sources, Somali, Ethiopian, Sikh and Pakistani syndicates have been smuggling people to Canada for years, and now charge between $12,000 and $16,000 per person. (The price for Tamils has risen to $20,000.) South American networks are also active. Luzmila Del Carmen Godoy, an immigration consultant from Chile who is now a Canadian citizen, is awaiting trial in Toronto for smuggling dozens of South Americans to Canada through Mexico at $5,000 a head. And last month, Argentine police broke up a ring that was sending Indian nationals to Canada and the United States through Argentina and Brazil. The Russian mafia has entered the scene, too. Jim Puleo, a U.S. state department official who co-chairs Clinton's anti-alien smuggling task force, says there are currently 200,000 illegal migrants in Moscow in transit to the West.

And Tamils are not the biggest alien smugglers in the world. That distinction belongs to Taiwanese-based gangs. According to Willard Myers, a former immigration lawyer for Asian clients who now heads the Philadelphia-based Center for the Study of Asian Organized Crime, Chinese gangs smuggled 100,000 people a year to the United States alone between 1990 and 1993, often using Canada as a conduit. Last year, 79 Chinese paid smugglers $70,000 each, and entered the United States via

Canada by posing as millionaire investors. Only one has since been apprehended. The immigration service's McCabe says that his unit has identified more than a dozen major smuggling operations based in Toronto's Asian community that send migrants to the States.

But even the biggest Chinese alien smugglers are dwarfed by Gloria Canales, a 40-year-old Costa Rican now in a Honduran jail. American officials estimate that Canales is worth more than $40 million, and was smuggling 10,000 people a year to North America before she was arrested last year.

Her case illustrates the most perilous risk taken by clients of human traffickers: death. According to American investigators, 10 of Canales' clients have died en route to the United States, including three Indians who drowned in the Gulf of Fonseca between Honduras and El Salvador last summer. In 1993, eight Chinese migrants died off Long Island trying to swim ashore from a rusted freighter carrying 290 clients of alien smugglers.

Other migrants tell horrifying accounts of smugglers raping them in safe houses, or of being enslaved to a gang in the destination country to work off their fee. Many of the 79 Chinese smuggled to the United States through Canada last year now work as prostitutes in New York City, according to one of the group's Canadian hosts. Such stories are common. Declares Richard Boraks, a longtime Toronto immigration lawyer and critic of colleagues who represent irregular migrants: “Ever since Moses parted the Red Sea, moving people has been a rough, tough and dirty business.” Even Rajan and Thavam might well agree with that.


Countries that produce the most illegal migrants:










Sri Lanka