Photo courtesy Herald Sun
Australia has recently been dealing with an upsurge of asylum seekers who have traveled by boat from elsewhere in Asia. The Jakarta Globe notes that, “While most boats originate in Indonesia, there has been a recent spike in attempted crossings from Sri Lanka.” In addition, over 250 Sri Lankans have been detained after having tried to leave the country illegally by boat.
The trafficking of people should be a concern for the State, especially in light of so many incidents being reported over the past few months.
Points of Departure
Through its interviews, TSA has discovered three points of departure: Udappu (Puttalam), Vettilaikkerni (Jaffna) and Salli (Trincomalee), all of which are Tamil areas. Regardless of where they depart from, most boats eventually go through Trincomalee Harbor. Some interviewees have made the distinction between “points of assembly” and “points of departure.”
Salli has repeatedly been cited as the principal point of assembly. Here meetings about the process are held, other logistical matters are dealt with and transactions actually take place. Again, the vast majority of people fleeing have gone through Trincomalee Harbor. It has been mentioned that it is easier to travel through Trincomalee because the water is deeper there.
The Military’s Presence
Some people have said that it is curious that those coordinating these criminal activities have been able to avoid detection by State security personnel. After all, most people are departing from ports located in the country’s North and East. Significantly, Navy camps are located near all three points of departure. These are places where the military has a strong presence. Based on the ubiquity of military personnel residing near the points of departure, it is extremely unlikely that some military personnel have not been involved. (Dispassionate readers are encouraged to draw their own conclusions).
Furthermore, all boats in Trincomalee must go through Trincomalee Harbor since other areas nearby are too difficult to pass through. Navy personnel in Trincomalee had to have noticed these boats.
Aside from suggestions that the military is connected to these illegal activities, community members have voiced concerns about links to certain criminal groups operating in Sri Lanka. More specifically, people have said that one member of the ruling regime is linked to human trafficking in Trincomalee (the name of this individual is commonly used in the area). They have suggested that that individual must be connected to these specific human-trafficking operations, which appear to be coordinated by a single group.
Further research by TSA has confirmed some of these suspicions.
The current price of a voyage to Australia is 800,000 Sri Lankan Rupees per person. Asylum seekers are required to pay half that amount before leaving the island. Yet, traffickers are not only accepting money; they have also suggested, and even encouraged, that community members hand over their land deeds and permits if they do not have enough cash to travel. It is worth noting that the majority of them are from socioeconomically marginalized groups.
In addition, TSA has confirmed reports that traffickers are requiring that asylum seekers provide a copy of their birth certificate before departing. People are being asked to sign the back of those documents and also to include a short note that mentions the day they are leaving Sri Lanka. Then traffickers collect those forms.
There are three types of boats and people leave in batches of 15, 20 or 50, depending on the size of the boat being used at the point of departure.
Community members have reported that people are being trained to operate the boat from its point of departure to international waters. Upon reaching the international maritime boundary, asylum seekers then board a larger ship and head to Australia.
Community members have also reported that Navy personnel have been escorting asylum seekers to international waters. (This would explain why some boats get caught, while many others are allowed to pass).
Sadly, the prospect of asylum would appeal to many ex-combatants in post-war Sri Lanka. It has been reported that several ex-combatants have been approached about immigrating illegally shortly after they had been released from Protective Accommodation and Rehabilitation Centres (PARCs).
From an Interviewee
During its interviews with one community member in Trincomalee, TSA was able to obtain the following additional information. Please note that these are all direct quotations:
- “The Navy are taking people to a place called Salli in Trincomalee.”
- “The Navy has been helping direct boats to international waters.”
- “One of the people will be trained to operate the boat. To me it makes sense to get an ex-combatant to do it.”
- “You have to contact a person from Trincomalee to make all the arrangements; they’re the ones who know how to arrange the logistics.”
- “With the Navy’s assistance, they’re reaching international waters and then they get on a different ship.”
- “Nobody knows whether you’ll be arrested, or reach your destination or come back to Sri Lanka.”
- “They won’t even tell you how many days it takes to reach your destination.”
- “Right now, you cannot really see young men in Puttulam, Chilaw or Udappu. Most have gone away.”
- “The Navy is sending people out to tackle terrorism; that’s why this is happening. The irony here is, when we reach Australia, we are registering as terrorists. The only way you’ll get asylum in Australia is by saying that you are an ex-combatant.”
- “The traffickers are removing the names of those leaving from voter lists. I just know it. They’re losing their right to vote. People know that this is happening.”
- “Approximately 13,000 people have left since this operation started. Out of that, 3,000 are from Trincomalee. Almost all are Tamils.”
This interviewee also noted that a small business enterprise in Jaffna has lost five out of twenty-two employees as a result of this trafficking.
These recent developments raise a number of questions, some of which are still difficult to answer. For starters, the timing of this influx in illegal migration may have a political component. After all, voter registration has been in full swing since early June. July 15 had been the intended deadline to collect all registration forms. In spite of the announced deadline, registration forms are still being collected by the government in some locations. A few community members have voiced suspicions over what has recently transpired. There is a palpable concern that traffickers have been taking copies of peoples’ birth certificates in order to cross peoples’ names off voter registration lists. Why else would human traffickers need such documents? And why would they want people to write a short note announcing the day they have left Sri Lanka?
Why have traffickers not been asking for other assets? Sure, items like televisions might be too cumbersome, but what about jewelry? Why are land deeds and permits the only assets that traffickers will accept besides money? (Interestingly, land deeds from Udappu are comparatively more valuable).
Who exactly is operating these ships when they leave Sri Lanka? (The LTTE’s Sea Tigers did have control over the North and East for a considerable period of time). Is it possible that Sea Tigers have been recruited to pilot these ships to international waters? Perhaps more intriguingly, would Sea Tigers be doing this voluntarily? Or would they have been forced to comply with requests from the Sri Lanka Navy?
Additional reporting on this subject will invariably come in the coming weeks, but a few things are clear. This process obviously reduces Sri Lanka’s Tamil population. It also reduces the voting population of Sri Lankan Tamils. And, by taking peoples’ land deeds and permits, the opportunity is ripe for the settlement of other people in historically Tamil areas. The fact that State security personnel are complicit in this process deserves both domestic and international opprobrium.
The flight of ethnic Tamils from the island is nothing new, as thousands fled during the war’s final phases. Nevertheless, the dramatic rise in illegal migration to Australia is a disturbing trend. Travelling under these circumstances is inherently risky. Yet, those who leave are undoubtedly in search of a better, more prosperous and more peaceful future.
An additional, long-lasting complication arises when those wanting to leave are compelled to pay their transit fees with lands deeds and permits instead of money. The ramifications of such an exchange are profound and worrisome. Frankly, these activities have been too well-planned for them to have been disparate, unconnected incidents. The reports TSA has received are too consistent, the process too linear.
So, who is guiding this process?
And what do these developments say about the country’s progress towards national reconciliation? For those living in the predominantly Tamil North and East, what does all of this say about peoples’ quality of life in post-war Sri Lanka?
The mainstream media’s coverage of this leaves much to be desired. There is no question that state actors have a hand in these illegal activities. Like other recent examples of government corruption, the question is not: Is corruption taking place? The most salient questions of the hour are the following: Who is pulling the strings behind the scenes? Does this illegal behavior go to the highest levels of power?
If the arrest of journalists, the passage of heinous legislation against media freedom, the severe beating of prisoners, and a death threat from a senior official were not enough, this is another shameful mark on the government’s résumé of June-July 2012.
This most recent development is an additional reminder that the country’s institutions continue to deteriorate under the administration of the present regime. Sri Lankans of all stripes should be appalled.
As an absolute minimum, the nation’s citizens deserve more from their law enforcement and security authorities. It is their job to curb criminal activity, not play a part in it.
 TSA has identified the recent developments in Sri Lanka as human trafficking (as opposed to human smuggling) because what has recently transpired involves deception, the abuse of power, exploitation and ulterior motives, all of which are currently being propagated by certain state employees, among others. This is not just about economics, financial transactions or “material benefits.” There is much more to this story.
 TSA interviews with community members in Colombo and Trincomalee, 15-17 July 2012.
 The voyage used to cost between 600,000-700,000 Sri Lankan Rupees, but the price has recently increased.
 TSA interviews with Grama Sevakas, 16-17 July 2012.