Sheridan dips into the illegal immigration issue while visiting Lanka

Greg Sheridan in The Australian, 29 August 2013, where the title reads  “Sri Lanka holds back the tide”

“MY question is this: if people are really persecuted here, why don’t they go to India, which is two hours away? Why do they take a dangerous journey of 25 or 30 days in a boat to Australia?” So asks Vice Admiral Jayanath Colombage, commander of the Sri Lanka Navy, in the course of a long discussion in naval headquarters in Colombo.

cartoon by Eric Lobbecke


Sri Lanka is a fascinating place right now. Its war of nearly 30 years with the terrorist separatist Tamil Tigers ended four years ago. Now its economy is belting along at more than 6 per cent, making it one of Asia’s fastest growing economies. There are wounds left over from the war and questions to be answered about events at its end. But the optimism is palpable.

One big manufacturer told me how for most of his working life, his company, which he joined in the 1970s, was operating in a nation at war. Now it is rushing to open a big factory in the north, in the Jaffna Peninsula, where the war was at its worst. It will employ 2000 people.

Another businessman, a Tamil, endows a Hindu temple in the north where his family originated. A tradesman who does occasional jobs at the temple shocked him by saying he planned to get a boat to Australia. The man was going to pay $9000 for himself and his wife, lesser amounts for his kids. There was a craze among ambitious young Tamil men to go to Australia this way.

He talked his friend out of getting an illegal boat. The friend decided to go to the Middle East, where he could earn big money. The tradesman is obviously an enterprising guy and would probably make a good immigrant, but he is not remotely someone fleeing persecution as a refugee.

Of all the nations in Asia, none has co-operated more closely with Australia to stop illegal immigrants than Sri Lanka. Colombage calls Australia’s chief of navy, Vice Admiral Ray Griggs, a friend. “Our wives are also friends,” he says.

During the past three years the Sri Lanka Navy has intercepted 4145 would-be illegal immigrants to Australia. It has also arrested a couple of hundred people onshore, just before embarkation. That is nearly 4500 people who would otherwise have headed for Australia. Some hundreds would have drowned. As a result of these efforts, the numbers of those attempting to sail to Australia have fallen drastically.

Sri Lanka also agrees to take back anybody forcibly repatriated from Australia. This applies to people found not to be refugees. This is a normal obligation. All nations are required to take their citizens but many, notably Iran, do not.

Once the Sri Lanka Navy arrests illegal immigrants, it brings them back to shore, checks them medically and gives them a feed. Little fishing boats meant for seven or eight people sometimes carry 120 or more. The conditions are atrocious. Often there is not enough food, perhaps one toilet at best, and barely enough fuel to make it to Australian waters. If a boat encounters a bad storm it’s in terrible trouble. The boatpeople are pretty unhappy when they return home. They’ve spent all their money, they haven’t made it to Australia and they’ve become minor criminals.

Typically they are brought before a magistrate’s court, and this is shaming. They don’t receive any serious punishment and are not generally held on remand, but the business is distressing. Boat crews, on the other hand, can spend months on remand. There are no restrictions on people leaving Sri Lanka by legal means to work, live, migrate, holiday or whatever overseas. But the Sri Lankan government believes the penetration of the people-smuggling industry undermines its law and order.

Like all old sailors, Colombage is a mine of fascinating tales. But three things struck me most: the centrality of pull factors from Australia, the psychology of the people making the journey, and his allegations of involvement by the ongoing support networks of the Tamil Tiger terrorist movement. “The pull factors are very important,” he says.

“People believe that in Australia they’ll get a job and earn 10 times more than they would in Sri Lanka. Once one person is in Australia, they believe, he can bring out the family. There are positive role models for them, people who’ve made the boat journey and send back $1500 a month to their family in Sri Lanka.”

The people-smuggler criminal syndicates try to discredit any Australian deterrence measures. They tell people if they go as a family, they will be accepted; that whoever is in government after the election will soften the rules; that staying in a camp for six months and playing cricket is not a big price to pay for the prize of living permanently in Australia.

So Colombage offers the maximum encouragement to Australia to take a hard line, to make sure that people who travel illegally by boat do not have the prospect of permanent settlement in Australia.

His assessment that remaining Tamil Tiger networks are involved in people-smuggling is controversial but makes sense. The Tigers were comprehensively defeated within Sri Lanka militarily. Their separatist dream is over, so is their extraordinarily vicious terrorism. Tamils within Sri Lanka have all sorts of discontents but they want to get ahead within the Sri Lankan nation. But the vast Tiger support networks in the Tamil diaspora, some consciously pro-terrorist, others foolishly sentimental, are still in place.

Colombage believes the people-smuggling business suits the Tiger support networks in vital ways. It raises a lot of money. It helps continue to blacken Sri Lanka’s name, as to get refugee status illegal arrivals must tell a tale of persecution. And it helps implant in key Western societies, such as Australia, a community that will ultimately be a pro-Tamil separatist vote bank.

This is a complex picture, with countless shadings. But one thing is clear. Sri Lanka is Australia’s best friend on the people-smuggling issue. The two nations, or at least their governments, are effectively as one.

Greg Sheridan visited Colombo as a guest of the Sri Lanka government.

Courtesy : The Australian 

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