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Human trafficking still a brisk and dangerous trade- Sri Lankans risk life and limb in false hopes of prosperity

November 28, 2012 ·  , reporter, Negombo Sri Lanka


It is thought that at least one boatload of illegal immigrants embarks each week

With frequent mechanical failures at sea and almost certain arrest and detention, the risks of illegal migration and trafficking of humans to Australia have always been high.

The risk of death is enormous.The United Nations estimates that between 200,000 and 400,000 people have perished at sea in recent years attempting to make the journey.

The Sri Lankan government has partnered with Australia to discourage people who consider the risk worth taking.

Chris Bowen, Australia’s minister of immigration and citizenship, told reporters recently that those who pay high fees for the chance to come to Australia are being conned.

“Young people who pay smugglers are risking their lives and throwing away their money. There is no visa awaiting them on arrive and no speedy outcome, no special treatment.”

But the message seems to have been lost in translation.

The Sri Lankan Navy says it has seen a surge of “boat people” attempting to make the treacherous journey to what they hope is a better life.

About one boat each week embarks for Australia, and more than 5,000 Sri Lankan asylum seekers have reached their destination, according to local media reports.

Others were captured prior to departure or rescued at sea when their boats broke down.

“We have captured nearly 2,700 people this year,” said Commander Kosala Warnakulasuriya, a spokesman for the navy.

“We have found the main points of departure and our intelligence forces keep vigil day and night in those places to break the human smuggling trade at its root level.”

Most of these illegal migrants come from poor families and become easy targets for smugglers, who paint a false portrait of prosperity, good jobs and improved living conditions in the destination country, which is most often Australia.

Marian Chathurangi, 30, the mother of two children, said her husband was just such a victim.

“He wanted to buy land and build a house that could be called ours, but now he suffers in jail,” she said of her husband B. Nimesh Fernando. He was among 103 arrested in August while attempting to migrate illegally to Australia aboard three fishing trawlers. He remains in detention.

He worked as a painter and earned about US$175 per month – enough, he said, to cover expenses for only about two weeks. The family lives on land owned by a relative in a makeshift timber house.

A friend who has worked for many years on a fishing boat told him that a group of men were preparing to depart for Australia, and Nimesh said he believed that this was the answer to his family’s financial struggles.

“It was a death-defying journey, but my poor economy compelled to opt for it,” Nimesh said during an interview from prison.

The journey to Christmas Island in Australia takes about 14 days. Those who don’t survive are simply pitched overboard.

Anthony Suwamidu Croos, a 40-year-old fisherman arrested last year after the boat he was on was intercepted near Christmas Island, described the payment process.

“Everyone was required to pay between $6,000 and $7,000, 50 percent up front and the rest on arrival,” said Croos, who has been released from jail because of bad health.

A safe arrival at Christmas Island, however, holds no guarantees that asylum seekers will be accepted.

Kumara Fernando, who was arrested on arrival and later deported, says new restrictions have made it even more difficult for asylum seekers.

“If somebody steps into Australia, he is recognized as an asylum seeker and given resources such as food,” he said.

“[They] undergo six months of training to learn English. During the training, everyone is given Au$50 per week for expenses. This was how it was before last August.”

The Australian government last year changed its immigration policy. Immigrants or asylum seekers arriving after August 13, 2011 would be sent immediately to detention centers.

“Many people planned to have those opportunities but they failed because of changes to the law,” Fernando said.


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