The Sunday Leader

Human Smuggling On The Rise In 2012

By Dinouk Colombage

Boats like these are commonly used by asylum seekers out of Sri Lanka to reach Australia. The Australian Government has reported a sharp increase in the number of Sri Lankans arriving in Australia in the first half of 2012 - © Amantha Perera/IRIN

Australian authorities have confirmed that durin the first six months of 2012 alone, over 1,300 asylum seekers from Sri Lanka have attempted to enter the country illegally.
Daniel Sanders, immigration officer at the Department of Immigration, confirmed that in the past six months there had been 1,340 asylum seekers who had arrived in Australian territory. He said that, “this is almost five times the total amount of asylum seekers that arrived from Sri Lanka in 2011.”
Sanders went on to explain that of all the boat people interviewed upon arrival, nearly 60% had claimed to have begun their voyage from Sri Lanka. “Many of them have claimed to have boarded vessels in Sri Lanka while the rest said they had come from the refugee camps in India”, he said.
“The majority of the asylum seekers are Tamils, but there are also Sinhalese and some Muslims amongst them”, he said.
Sanders refused to comment on whether or not the asylum seekers on Christmas Island would be allowed to remain in Australia or returned to Sri Lanka. “They have all applied for asylum. We will be studying their documents and make a decision on who is eligible and who is not”, he explained.
Sanders did say that the Australian government was in discussions with their Malaysian counterparts, but no agreement had been reached yet. “The Australian and Malaysian governments are discussing the possibility of an exchange. This will see Malaysia take the refugees from Christmas Island. In return Australia will resettle established asylum seekers from Malaysia”, he said.
Sanders speculating on the reason for the sharp hike in refugees said, “with the war having ended perhaps the security around the international waters in the region are not as tight as before, which allows these trawlers to escape undetected. However, I cannot give a definite answer.”
Commander Kosala Warnakulasuriya, Navy spokesman, explained that in the last six months the navy had increased their maritime patrols targeted at intercepting the human smuggling vessels. “Since the start of this year we have managed to apprehend 6 or 7 vessels which have been attempting to smuggle people to Australia”, he said.
He said that daily there were thousands of fishing boats in Sri Lankan waters. “It is difficult to monitor each vessel, which means there is the opportunity for them to sneak by our patrols.”
The navy spokesman said that while the Sri Lankan navy was not holding any joint operations with the Indian navy to aprehend the human smugglers, the increased numbers had prompted them to consider further measures which could be taken.
Government spokesperson, Keheliya Rambukwella, said that recent reports in the media had been portraying Sri Lanka as the main port for human smuggling. “While the numbers of Sri Lankan asylum seekers have increased, there is no concrete evidence to show the actual number which have originated from Sri Lanka. Many of them have also come from India. There are certain people who are looking to tarnish the reputation of the country”, he said.
Rambukwella added that the government was in talks with the Australian authorities over the increased number of asylum seekers and would be looking to sign an MOU (memorandum of understanding) so as to deal with the issue. He refused to comment on whether or not the government would be requesting the Australian authorities to return the Sri Lankan asylum seekers on Christmas Island.

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