Photo courtesy Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images

More than ten years ago the smuggling of people out of Sri Lanka by boat was thriving. While Australia is currently the preferred destination of these smuggled migrants, Italy was one of the major destinations in the past. While the points of departure of these boats also seem to be different today, there are some useful lessons to be learned from incidents of human smuggling in recent Sri Lankan history.

Allow me to briefly sketch out the origins of Sri Lankan mass illegal migration to Italy. Towards the late-1990s, people from across the island and of all ethnic backgrounds considered Italy as a potential destination for labor migration. However, this transnational migratory flow to Italy had initially been almost monopolized by Catholic youth from the western seaboard. Virtually all of these young men who sought to relocate to Italian cities as an alternative to working with their families in the fishing industry came from smaller towns like Negombo, Wennappuwa and Chilaw, all located to the north of Colombo.

Weather conditions in this island nation had for centuries forced fishermen to migrate seasonally following the monsoon cycles. People who officially made their homes in places like Negombo, for example, migrated for several months out of every year during the south west monsoon to the island of Mannar (220 kilometers to the north) or to Kokkilai in Mullaitivu District (260 kilometers to the Northeast). Once there, they built cadjan wadiyas (palm-leaf thatched huts) and settled semi-permanently on the beaches with little more than their nets and boats. These Sinhalese speaking Catholic fishermen generally worked here without conflicts and interacted with the local Tamil populations peacefully.[i]

With the start of the war in 1983, the presence of these migrants – although seasonal – was no longer welcomed, as Tamil separatists fought for control over these territories. Some of the first attacks by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) on Sinhalese civilians took place in late 1984 in places like Dollar and Kent farms in Mullaitivu district where more than sixty people were killed. The Kokkilai massacre, when eleven Sinhalese Catholic fishermen were killed on December 1st, 1984, marked the beginning of drastic changes for fisher families.

As the violence escalated in the late 1980s, fishermen could no longer migrate to the localities where they had historically traveled for work. Although many managed to navigate the endless checkpoints and areas of open armed confrontation between the LTTE and the army, the places where they had traditionally based their fishing activities were no longer considered safe.

When perceived in combination with the larger economic difficulties that Sri Lanka was experiencing at that time of market reforms under UNP rule, it becomes clear that the overall living conditions of fisher families had dramatically deteriorated. After the first pioneering generation of Sri Lankan fishermen traveled to Italy in the 1980s and managed to secure profitable jobs, many in their hometowns started to see this as their only alternative out of poverty and looked for ways to migrate to Italy, even by illegal means.[ii]

During the previous decade, the Sri Lankan government had encouraged the introduction to motorized fishing trawlers to the local industry.[iii] In particular, Festus Perera, the Minister of Fisheries at the time, promoted these developments amongst his constituents who mainly came from the coastal belt of fishing towns. These new motorized vessels were able to venture far out of the coast and could eventually be used to transport other products or even people across the ocean. Not long after their introduction in the local fishing industry, some boat owners found more profitable businesses than fishing. They soon started developing the connections necessary to establish transportation networks, allowing them to take dozens of people at a time across the Indian Ocean, Red Sea, Suez Canal and Mediterranean to reach the coasts of Italy.

At the height of the smuggling business in 2000, boats were arriving weekly to Italy from Negombo and other towns. While the first boats doing this trip are said to have left in 1994 charging less than US$ 2,000 per person, the prices charged by smugglers grew exponentially over the next few years, eventually surpassing the $4,000 mark.  Lacking the money to pay for this, many young Sri Lankans could only afford it by offering their family’s property as collateral.

Some of the smugglers were supposed to have relatively safe and carefully planned schedules for the twenty day voyage, but the popularity of the smuggling industry encouraged many to improvise their voyages which led to overcrowded boats, scams and even the death of passengers.[iv]

The rather homogeneous cargo of young Catholic fishermen from the west coast started to change and extend to other communities and other parts of the country, eventually having an international reach. The ease with which nationals of countries like Bangladesh, India and Pakistan entered Sri Lanka led many Europe-bound migrants to arrive first at Katunayake airport near Negombo, only to be later smuggled via ocean routes to Italy. In 2003 it was widely reported that the Sri Lankan police detained 260 Pakistani citizens who were waiting in the southern town of Tangalle to be smuggled out of the country.[v] Note that these people were not going to be smuggled by Negombo boat owners, but were part of a larger international operation. Nevertheless, relaxed immigration controls in Sri Lanka have made the country a stopover in migratory paths for non-Sri Lankans for many years.

This situation drastically changed in 2002 as a consequence of two important decisions. First, the Italian Parliament sanctioned a new immigration law known as the Bossi-Fini law.[vi] This law amended previous immigration legislation and offered a path to regularization to those already living in Italy. It also devised a structure for the processing of new immigrants with offices throughout the country and stricter border controls.

The second important change was a consequence of the ASEM — Ministerial Conference on Cooperation for the Management of Migratory Flows between Europe and Asia. Following this conference, the Italian government established bilateral agreements with sending countries to help curb illegal migratory flows. One of the advantages to the countries that signed was that Italy offered them special quotas for immigrants and readmission priorities in exchange for their cooperation. Another component of these agreements was to externalize the policing of the Italian border.[vii] In other words, Italian authorities began cooperating logistically and financially with local law-enforcement agencies to stop migration at the point of departure. An example of this kind of cooperation is that the Sri Lankan Navy received the donation of an Italian patrol boat in early 2006.[viii]

As a consequence of these measures, illegal migration to Italy was drastically controlled. A police officer in Negombo told me that back in 2002 they received the order to crack down on illegal emigration. He remembered that at that time smugglers were making large amounts of money and even offered to take him to Italy for free if he allowed them to do their business. Looking back at his decision he told me, “Maybe I should have taken the offer and gone there with my family. My wife’s family is already there anyway.” The sea route to Italy that originated in 1994 and grew exponentially every year had peaked in 2002 when police estimates suggested that 2,000 Sri Lankans had been smuggled to Italy. Only a year later, this route to Italy was almost completely extinguished.    

One can extract a couple of salient points regarding the main motives that fuel migration from this brief overview of the recent history of people smuggling in Sri Lanka. Sri Lankan Catholics that sought to leave the country over the last thirty years had predominantly been pushed into migration because of economic hardships in the country. That being said, these fishermen have on many occasions been the victims of high levels of violence that have marred the country’s development since the mid-1980s. The Kokkilai massacre is certainly the most gruesome and obvious example. However, many other factors played a role in the deteriorating living conditions of Sri Lankan fishermen. Even after the war was officially over in 2009, when the army was transporting military equipment to Colombo by sea, fishermen were not allowed to work on their boats for several days. Thus, one can see how the militarization of Sri Lanka reached even its maritime borders and affected the normal development of fisher people activities.

This does not questions the arguments that stress the perilous and volatile conditions under which Tamil youths in the North of Sri Lanka still live in today. Yet the desire to leave the country amongst virtually all Sri Lankans speaks to the poor conditions, demoralizing and hopeless image that many Sri Lankans hold of their country. Regardless of their political views and personal financial conditions, I have met very few young Sri Lankans who wouldn’t migrate if given the opportunity. What is really at stake is how much a person is willing to risk in order to migrate.

A rather accurate picture of this situation could be achieved by measuring how much people are paying to be smuggled and under what conditions. A 2009 article published in the Sunday Leader showed that the extremely poor conditions of life for Tamil youths in the North drove them to pay exorbitant amounts of money to migrate, while people who boarded boats along the western coast were only ready to pay half as much.[ix] A recent article has told the world that Tamils in the Trincomalee area are paying the equivalent of almost US$8,000.[x] One of the consequences that can be extracted from this is that smugglers would rather take anyone who can afford it, regardless of their ethnicity.

Other claims suggesting that smuggling to Australia is part of a larger project to manipulate the demographic composition of Tamil regions, or that these migrant flows are established by some kind of intervention on the part of the government and armed forces, seem more difficult to sustain. While the involvement of individual politicians, navy and police officers was common in the Negombo area a decade ago, this never hinted at more than ordinary corruption and bribery networks. Also speculative are the ultimate intentions of smugglers who require land deeds and birth certificates of prospective travelers. As noted earlier, this is not a new practice – these documents have been used as collateral for loans to migrants for many years. In the context of the rising rates charged by smugglers and the increasing difficulties that local youth have to obtain the required cash, it is not surprising that abusive conditions will be imposed to those in need of loans.

The surge of articles and information that has appeared over the last year on people smugglers and asylum seekers trying to reach the Australian shores raise important concerns regarding the well-being of Sri Lankan youth. However, it seems that an approach that is aware of cases of undocumented migration in Sri Lanka’s recent past can contextualize better some of the interpretations that are being produced. At the same time, international cooperation has offered ways to protect the safety of migrants in the past. This should also signal the need for a move towards better dialogue between Australia and the governments of sending countries.

Bernardo Brown am a PhD Candidate at the Dept of Anthropology, Cornell University, working on issues of morality in the context of Sri Lankan transnationalism. In 2010 I conducted twelve months of fieldwork in the fishing town of Negombo, with return migrants from Italy. My interests include the ethical aspects of migration amongst Sri Lankan Catholics and the way in which the history of this community outlines a distinctive attitude towards the foreign.

[i] The ethnographic work on west coast Catholic fishermen by anthropologist R.L. Stirrat published in 1988 offers an excellent introduction to the history of these fishing communities, On the Beach: Fishermen, Fishwives, and Fishtraders in the Post-colonial Lanka.


[iii] For the conditions of fishing communities in Sri Lanka see the 2009 work of K. Sivasubramaniam, Fisheries in Sri Lanka: Anthropological and Biological Aspects. Colombo: Kumaran Book House

[iv]  There were rumours of scam smugglers who would recruit migrant workers and sail away from the Sri Lankan coast for a few days. One stories says that in the middle of the night they reached a beach and told their passengers to jump out as they had reached the Italian shore, but they were only in Hambantota!


[vi] For the particulars of the 2002 Italian immigration reform see, Totah, Michele 2003 “Comment – Fortress Italy: Racial Politics and the New Immigration Amendment in Italy,” Fordham international Law journal., 26 (5): 1438.

[vii] The Italian and Egyptian governments had reached a cooperation agreement by which Italian immigration patrols were based on the Egyptian coast of the Red Sea to control the influx of undocumented immigrants and stop them before they got close to the Italian coast. In 2003 and 2004 boats from Negombo were still attempting this route but were systematically detained before reaching the Suez Canal.

[viii]  See “Practical Responses to Irregular Migration: The Italian Case”(2011). IDOS/EMN Italy.