Rohan Gunaratna on people smuggling networks and migration impulses

Rohan Gunaratna in Q and A with Manjula Fernando, Sunday Observer, 12 August 2012

Q: You were the first to raise alarm bells of a secret ship loaded with hundreds of Lankan illegal immigrants heading to Canada from Thailand in 2009. After a couple of ships the flow of sea migrants to Canada stopped but Australia is facing a bigger issue now. Hundreds of people are arrested every month by the Sri Lankan Navy while trying to set sail. Nothing has proved successful so far in discouraging these perilous sea voyages. Why?

A: The LTTE operated MV Ocean Lady and MV Sun Sea arrived in Canada with 76 and 492 Sri Lankans in 2009 and 2010. Launched from Thailand, both these ventures were organised by the LTTE leadership in Canada and the UK. The earned several million dollars from these two ventures. Since then the LTTE human smuggling networks operating out of Thailand have been disrupted by the Thai, Canadian and Australian authorities. The initial waves of human smuggling ventures were guided by the LTTE operatives in the West. Today, Tamil Nadu and Sri Lankan criminals are directing human smuggling ventures. With human smugglers charging Rs. 700,000 to Rs. 1.2 million, a boat with 50 passengers will generate US $ 500,000.

 MV Sun Sea outside Canadian coast

Q: Though it has been claimed the LTTE was behind this smuggling racket, the locals say these illegal sea voyages are a welcome income-earner for those in the fish trade, who have no connection whatsoever with terrorists?

A: The LTTE procurement, shipping, and identity fraud experts living in Canada, Europe, Australia and New Zealand set a trend by organising the first wave of ventures. After the LTTE’s networks in South-east Asia were disrupted, the human smuggling enterprise had expanded. Today, the human smugglers are economically motivated criminals.

Human smuggling is a high risk, high profit enterprise involving unscrupulous businessmen. These human smugglers work with a tiny percentage of the Tamil diaspora who pay them to transport their relatives and friends. These human smugglers receive payments in two instalments from Australia. First, an initial payment of Rs. 300,000 and Rs. 500,000 to Rs. 1 million when the passenger reaches Australia. While the initial payment is to cover the cost of organising the boat, the final payment is the human smuggler’s profit. About 93 percent of those arrested are Tamils and 5 percent are Sinhalese, usually the boat crew. The incentive for the crew is a free passage to Australia.

Q: Do you think the arrest of a TNA politician in connection with human smuggling opens up a new dimension to the human smuggling racket?

A: The TNA politician was economically motivated. As a proxy of the LTTE, some TNA leaders are working closely with the LTTE remnants overseas. The LTTE remnants that funded terrorism are today engaged in criminal enterprises to fund their misinformation and disinformation activities. Like the LTTE, its extension in Sri Lanka, the TNA, wants to keep the issue of Tamil Eelam alive! Human smuggling is a transnational crime. An international legal regime exists in the Protocol against the Smuggling of Migrants by Land, Sea and Air to which Sri Lanka is a signatory. This needs to be ratified and government should enact domestic laws to deal with this issue.

Certainly, Sri Lanka must pass new laws empowering its authorities to seize property and other assets and give longer sentences to human smugglers, and the entire chain supporting it. The Government of Sri Lanka should work with their Australian counterparts to build a legal framework, an Anti-Human Smuggling Operations Centre, and relentlessly target the organisers, boat owners, politicians, officials and more importantly those diaspora elements financing a person to embark on this perilous journey.

With limited resources, the Sri Lankan Navy and Police have done a remarkable job. Where larger navies have failed, Sri Lanka’s commitment has to be recognised.

Q: Quite a few Australia bound boats were intercepted by the South Indian authorities. Who is funding and organising these voyages? Are they somehow connected to the smuggling operations in Sri Lanka?

A: A vast human smuggling network existed in Sri Lanka, Tamil Nadu and in Southeast Asia during the Sri Lankan conflict. Most of these human smugglers with multiple passports have moved out of Sri Lanka and India but they are still running the networks out of India and Sri Lanka. The elements of this network that worked closely with the LTTE included Sathiyaseelan Balasingham alias Paraba and Somasundaram Somaravendran alias Moscow Ravi operating out of Laos, Jonson Suresskumar Selvanayagem alias Suresh who is operating out of Malaysia, Raveendran Mahendran alias Cut Ravi who was operating out of Thailand. The LTTE intelligence wing under Pottu Amman had dedicated leaders such as Siranjeevi Master in India, Vinayagam in France, Shanmugasundaram Kanthaskaran in the UK who worked with these criminals.

The LTTE intelligence wing managed this criminal network that engaged not only in human smuggling but also in drug trafficking and providing arms to criminal groups in Colombo.

Q: You claimed that unless Australia, Canada, US and other states arrest LTTE leaders, the masterminds, involved in these operations, the flow of sea migrants is bound to continue. What is the basis for this statement?

A: I have interviewed a large number of human smugglers and terrorist leaders. The Sri Lankan human smuggling enterprise consists of three components: (a) criminals, (b) criminals who collaborate with the LTTE and (c) a new class of terrorist-criminals. While categories (a) and (b) existed during the war, the face of human smuggling changed at the end of the war. Those LTTE cadres unskilled and poorly skilled except in fighting moved towards criminality. Although the LTTE engaged in human smuggling operations, the LTTE became globally known for human smuggling only after October 2009.

To relocate their leaders, members, helpers and their families in Asia to the west, mostly to Canada and Australia, the LTTE weapons smugglers located in Canada and UK started to use LTTE arms carriers. Ravishankar Kanagarajah, former captain of a LTTE arms carrier and Shanmugasundaram Kanthaskaran, a former Black Sea Tiger, masterminded the operations.

Q: What is behind Canada’s success story?. Within months they managed to stop the flow of sea migrants?

A: After MV Ocean Lady and MV Sun Sea arrived in Canada, the Government of Canada decided to go after the LTTE criminal enterprise. Rather than wait for the next ship, Canadian law enforcement, military and intelligence services started to work together with their Australian, European and Asian counterparts to preempt such voyages. With operations against terrorists and criminals engaged in human smuggling in Southeast Asia in 2011, the network returned to South Asia and displaced to Africa.

Q: Australia deported its first Tamil illegal immigrant recently but the action was condemned by UN and other human rights organisations?

A: Contrary to what was reported by the LTTE, pro-LTTE media, and some human rights groups, Dayan A. Anthony was never under any interrogation. After his arrival at the BIA at midnight/early hours of July 26, he was accompanied by a policeman to the CID office on the same day. He was interviewed for two hours and then an identification process took another two hours where his fingerprints were taken and a review if there was any warrant issued against him.

Surprisingly it was found that no warrants were issued as highlighted by Australian media. Therefore, there was no case was against him. Even if he had a warrant, or was a member of the LTTE, he would have only gone through the normal process and would have been released depending on the type of warrant. eg: if he had committed murders then he would have to face charges as done in such a case. Thereafter he volunteered to make a statement to the public to tell his side of the story. He came out of CID office at 4 p.m. as a free man to attend the media conference organized at the Information Department which commenced at 5 p.m. And thereafter he left for his residence. He was never subjected to 16 hours of interrogation. Dayan was tired after a long flight from Australia to Bangkok and from there to Colombo. He was a little tense as any other human would be, but recovered soon after he realized that it was not the kind of treatment he expected.

A LTTE spokesperson in Australia claimed that he was coached to speak. It is impossible to coach a person within two hours and then to free him where he would have been accessible to anyone, including the Australian Mission in Sri Lanka. He is presently in a safe place and doesn’t want to get involved any media conversations as he knows that certain interested parties outside Sri Lanka are making an attempt to somehow put him in trouble and then capitalise on this for their advantage.

What he wants now is to be away from the public glare. I think he should be left alone to rebuild his life. He is a victim of the human smuggling enterprise and the LTTE fronts supporting it. Pic from Sunday Leader

Q: Why are such large numbers leaving Sri Lanka to Australia, if it’s not persecution, then what’s the reason?

A: Human smuggling is a supply and demand situation. There is an environment in Australia that attracts and an environment in Sri Lanka that drives people to move. As long as Australia accept the asylum seekers, people will go. With better living conditions and a good social security system, Australia acts as a pull factor. The push factors include a reduction of fish stocks prompting the boat owners to not send the boats for fishing but sell them as they may have to pay back their loans. The south west monsoon means calmer seas around the East coast. The rumour spread by those engaged in human smuggling is that the next Australian government may not look at the illegal immigrants in a friendly manner.

Therefore, those keen to go are encouraged to get there before the next election. The unscrupulous businessmen say that there is a new immigration law scheduled to come up soon and they have to get there before the law is passed. They also say that people who had undertaken the journey earlier are doing well and even sending money back and their families now want to join them and others are motivated to undertake the journey. In order to convince the people to undertake this voyage, both criminal and terrorist fronts mention the names of political and military figures and say that they too are involved.

A boat, meant for 7-10 people accommodates 50-100 people. While some boats are not seaworthy, all the boats are unhygienic and poor in sanitary conditions. Boats laid up for a long period are sold to these unscrupulous businessmen at a much higher price than the market value. As they would have collected the down payment and made some profit, they do not care whether the boat is taken into custody by Navy. Before the journey starts the criminals engaged in this enterprise vanish but maintain telephone contact with those who pay from Europe, North America, Australia.


ALSO SEE Roberts,A Flourishing Bibliographical Tree: Tamil Migration, Asylum-Seekers and Australia,”


Filed under accountability, asylum-seekers, australian media, historical interpretation, life stories, LTTE, people smugglers, politIcal discourse, population, propaganda, reconciliation, Tamil migration, tamil refugees, Tamil Tiger fighters, truth as casualty of war, world events & processes

2 responses to “Rohan Gunaratna on people smuggling networks and migration impulses

  1. Interesting analysis. It is a shame that Australia’s borders have virtually collapsed.

  2. Pingback: Tamil Tigers likely to dominate Sri Lankan asylum-seekers | Thuppahi's Blog

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