Aussies point fingers at Lankan criminals in people smuggling

Cameron Stewart and Paul Maley, in The Australian, 1 December 2012, with title reading: “Criminals moving in on asylum rackets” **

FOURFOLD increase in people-smuggler networks in Sri Lanka is driving the surge of boats that threatens to overwhelm Australia’s border protection regime.  Australian authorities have identified about 12 major people-smugglers operating in Sri Lanka – up from three a year ago. The expansion has been driven by criminal opportunists seeking to cash in on the lucrative trade by spreading false promises of jobs in Australia. However, the Gillard government believes it is now seeing early signs that its controversial policy of returning more than 700 arrivals to their homeland is making Sri Lankans, especially Sinhalese, reluctant to purchase a boat passage to Australia.

The revelations come as Foreign Minister Bob Carr yesterday began two days of meetings in the Sri Lankan capital Colombo, where he will seek closer co-operation between the two countries to stem the trade. More than 6500 Sri Lankans have arrived in Australia since the middle of this year, including 1200 in both October and last month, dwarfing the numbers of asylum-seekers arriving from other countries.

Senator Carr was expected to meet last night with his counterpart, Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Gamini Lakshman Peiris. Today he will join Mr Peiris and other senior Sri Lankan officials, including the Defence Minister Gotabaya Rajapaksa, for further talks about people-smuggling. During his visit, Senator Carr will also call on Sri Lanka’s President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Senator Carr’s visit reflects the central role the Sri Lankan pipeline is now playing in Australia’s border security crisis.

The Australian understands that many of the new kingpins of the Sri Lankan people-smuggling trade are organised crime figures who operate with impunity in some parts of the country, offering tickets to Australia priced at about $5000, with a $500 down payment and the rest paid after they arrive. The syndicates have largely targeted Sinhalese, who have made up almost 40 per cent of boat arrivals from Sri Lanka this year and whom the government believes are mostly economic refugees rather than genuine asylum-seekers.

It is Tamils, rather than the Sinhalese, who are considered to have the more credible claims for protection, having been on the losing side of the decades-long civil war to a Sinhalese government. It is believed that 550 of the 700 people returned to Sri Lanka from Australia this year after having been deemed to be economic refugees were Sinhalese rather than Tamil.

However, Australian authorities have noticed a recent but steep drop off in the number of Sinhalese arriving on boats, sparking hopes that the news of the return of so many has proved a deterrent. It has been more than 12 days since a boat arrived from Sri Lanka. During his visit, Senator Carr is expected to announce a major Australian-funded information blitz in regions of Sri Lanka targeted by the people-smugglers. The campaign will tell locals that if they take a boat to Australia they will not be allowed to work and will be returned to their home with no compensation. The Australian government has been able to return many arrivals from Sri Lanka by introducing a tougher standard to “screen out” arrivals, by requiring them to make overt claims for protection in initial interviews or risk deportation on the grounds that they are economic refugees rather than asylum-seekers who trigger Australia’s international obligations.

The operation of the Sri Lankan syndicates is markedly different from what authorities refer to as the AME – Afghan and Middle East – people-smugglers operating from Indonesia and Malaysia. Afghan and Middle Eastern smugglers are far more attuned to Australian policy settings. Sri Lankan migrants are more likely to declare the true reason for their journey to Australia, which in the case of the Sinhalese is usually to work. But, as in Sri Lanka, in Indonesia the traditional people-smuggling model is breaking down. In the past, Afghan people-smugglers were highly organised and operated within a recognisable structure, with each member of the organisation assigned a different role.

More recently, they have become far more fluid, forging ad oc links when and where required. The evolution of the syndicates poses great challenges for authorities, who are finding it harder to predict when and where boats are likely to arrive, and to task assets accordingly. As well, people-smugglers no longer operate within their own ethnic groups. The result is an increase in boats with “mixed cohorts”, such as Afghan, Iranians, Tamils and even Sudanese and Ethiopian migrants. The AME syndicates are also far more conscious about security, largely because, unlike the Sri Lankans, they are operating outside their own borders in countries such as Pakistan and Indonesia.

  ** Web Editor Comments: (1) It would seem that the emphasis on criminal gangs has been picked up from police or other local sources. But note the other factors stressed in my article on “no solution in Sight and the comments from the Controller of Immigration in Lanka which point to tightening passport checking in Europe and elsewhere which must impinge on the longstanding enterprises — some linked to LTTE — which channelled people to Europe and Canada from both Sri Lanka and India. (2) If 6500 Sri Lankans made it to Asutralia in the past year this indicates that about 80 to a30 boats from Sri Lanka reached Australia. This fact is conveniently passed over by reporters who, elsewhere, in keeping with conventional australian wisdom thump the argument that boat journeys are extremely dangerous.

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