Uncovering The Truth Behind Human Smuggling
By Dinouk Colombage
The call I was waiting for finally came last Wednesday morning. It was from a contact I had asked to set up a meeting with a human smuggler. For decades hundreds of thousands of Sri Lankans have used human smuggler rings to escape to the West, looking for a better life.
Close to a million Sri Lankans have sought refugee status in the west. What was a trickle in the late 70s turned into a huge surge in the post 1983 riots. Hundreds if not thousands have died on this risky journey. Today a one way voyage for a single person to a foreign destination costs about Rs. 130,000. Payment still does not guarantee that these people reach their intended destination. Most human smuggling starts from the western coastline and my contact, who has lived in Wattala all his life, knew people who were involved in the operation. The instructions given to me was to come to Wattala within the hour. “I can introduce you to a man who could help you”.
The man and my contact were already there, at the back of a shop which sold all kinds of stuff from groceries to short-eats etc. They were sitting in the poorly lit room hidden at the back of a boutique in Wattala. The man I was facing was dressed in a pair of jeans and a counterfeit t-shirt. The first thing I was asked to do was to dismantle my cell phone and to keep my wallet on the table in front of us. I had expected to be body searched, but that did not happen. He then introduced himself as Sugath. While keeping his eyes planted firmly on me, Sugath questioned my companion as to how I had “come to be in his office”.
Explaining to him that I had recently returned from Australia and was working with a NGO in Killinochchi, my companion elaborated on a story we had carefully crafted beforehand. He said that during my work in the North I had come in contact with families who were desperate to leave the country by any means possible. Sugath replied that unless they had Rs. 130,000 per person to spend we were wasting his time. Despite convincing him that they could raise the money, he remained suspicious explaining that “the people who can help them will not be available for a few weeks. I am sure you are aware of the recent arrests”.
He went on to stress that he was neither in charge of the money, nor was he responsible for the refugees leaving the country; he was simply a middle man. However, after further coaxing Sugath agreed to give the details of the procedure that goes in to smuggling these people out of the country. He explained that if the people were serious about fleeing Sri Lanka they would have to first come to Colombo where they would need to wait for a week to 12 days. “The transporters (a name by which he referred to the smugglers) cannot give an accurate date when they can get the people aboard the ship as it comes from India”, he said. Sugath added that they would also need to find accommodation, preferably in Wattala, and be ready to leave at a moment’s notice. “Until they are on the boats the refugees are not their responsibility; it is safer if they have as little contact as possible with the transporters.” Sugath was cautious not to give the impression that he was very much part of the operation. Sugath continued to explain that on the given day “the transporters” would collect the people in vehicles and they would be taken to the coast where they will be “transported out to international waters, at which point they board the vessel that will take them to their destination.” Sensing his suspicion at my continued questioning over the route taken by the smugglers, I changed the direction of the conversation and asked what guarantee these refugees had of a safe voyage. Sugath responded in a hostile tone that, “they are doing these people a service and risking jail terms. They should be aware of the dangers if they want to attempt to go overseas this way.” I asked what supplies the people would need with them on this journey. “They can only take luggage weighing a total of 25 kilograms; any identification must be handed over to the crew of the vessel and no currency can be kept with them.”
He went on to explain that the trip could take as long as 30 days, and so food and medical supplies are all stowed on the vessel. “They will be given bread, a watery gravy, occasional fish that the crew catches and water” he said. Suagath added that they needed to eat as light as possible as many of the people were unaccustomed to sea travel.
He said that the people must sleep on a single mat and use a common bathroom. Seeing the look of discomfort on my face, Sugath once again reminded us that ‘the transporters’ were doing a service for these people and that one month of hardship would mean the rest of their life in a free country.
He refused to answer any further questions regarding their entry into the foreign country, simply saying “another vessel would be awaiting their arrival and would take them ashore.” At this point my contact indicated that we would be leaving, which we did after thanking Sugath for his time. As we were leaving Sugath told us in a warning tone, “not to bother trying to find me here in the future, this was a one off meeting,” and that was that.
That week 113 people who were awaiting illegal passage out of the country were arrested in various locations from Wellawatta to Negombo. They had paid to be taken to Australia.
Police spokesperson, SP Ajith Rohana said that they had received information regarding the operation several weeks before the actual arrest. “Upon learning of this operation, we infiltrated the gang through an informant whose sole purpose was to identify the ring leaders,” he said.
The police identified one of the key smugglers and apprehended him. “While he was in our custody we were able to convince him to call the other members of the smuggling ring. He gave them a new location where they would be sailing from,” he said. Police teams were deployed at the location and the ring leaders as well as all 113 potential ‘asylum seekers’ were arrested. While this operation was a success, Rohana said that in most cases this kind of operation is detected when they get a tip off. “The smugglers continue to change their patterns; they never work from the same location which makes it very difficult for us to track them down. While we are monitoring several key locations it is difficult to watch the whole coast,” he explained.
With its limited resources Sri Lanka is dependent on the destination countries assistance in apprehending the human smugglers. “While countries like Australia deport some of these people, many of them continue to remain in the detention camps,” he said. He went on to explain that the smugglers board the main vessel about 30 miles out in international waters, meaning it is beyond the control of the Sri Lankan authorities. “While the smugglers use a similar route, they avoid all major shipping lines which means they also avoid the maritime security of several countries,” he said.