After three foiled attempts to illicitly ship out boatloads of people to Australia over the past six months, the mastermind behind the racket was arrested this week from a party held at a plush residence in the metropolis.
The suspect, who posed off as a wealthy businessman, is alleged to have single-handedly carried out the smuggling operations, using agents in all parts of the country, with contacts overseas, and amassed sizeable wealth by charging exorbitant fees from would-be illicit migrants, senior investigators at the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) revealed to the Sunday Times.
|The four boat operators and a load of provisions, water,
medicines and fuel were apprehended by the Navy
They said the man was picked up exactly a week after the police and Navy foiled an attempt to smuggle another 22 persons from the South. The group was picked up on a tip-off from a safe house in Rekawa in Hungama, on January 6.
A day later, a multi-day fishing vessel was apprehended by the Navy, along with four boat operators and a load of provisions, water, medicines and fuel. The boat was awaiting its human cargo when the Navy went in.
Investigators are now trying to ascertain the extent of the chief suspect’s operations, his contacts, both within the country and elsewhere, and whether he was acting alone or in collusion with others.
Investigations reveal that each would-be migrant was charged Rs. 500,000 for the trip, and the money paid in cash up front. Investigations are ongoing to establish if the man had any successful runs previously, if so, the route the vessels took.
Police are convinced that the suspect has links with international human smugglers who helped him in his operations. Hence, investigations are presently directed towards this end.
The suspect was tracked down and finally apprehended under the direct supervision of the Director- CID, Senior Superintendent of Police (SSP) Mahesh Perera.
Prior to the detection at Hungama, another boatload of a dozen persons including women and children was detected by the Navy off the coast of Hambantota late last year. The group was later handed over to the local police for further investigations.
In August last year, another 42 persons were nabbed on a beachhead at Kalmunai in the east, shortly before they were to board a vessel for the Australian coast.
However, police and Navy investigators believe that these detections are just the tip of the iceberg, and that, many others would have slipped out undetected on earlier occasions.
In the recent case at Hungama, Navy investigators are convinced that the boat was first heading for Indonesia, where the human cargo would be later transferred onto a larger vessel for the voyage to the Australian coast.
“There was a limited stock of rations, water and fuel on the boat, which only goes to suggest that the original destination was not Australia, but a country closer to our shores,” Navy spokesman Kosala Warnakulasuriya told the Sunday Times.
He added that the boat was in poor condition, and it was frightening to think that so many people would take such a risk on the high seas, that too after paying so much of money.
The multi-day fishing trawlers are equipped with freezer storage in the lower deck area which is around four feet in depth, and the illegal immigrants hide inside should a naval patrol approach the vessel, while the boat operators display fishing equipment such as nets, hooks etc., as a ruse.
“This ruse is difficult to detect owing to the large number of fishing vessels out at sea each day, and searching every one of them is a tedious task,” he added.
Human smuggling by sea from Sri Lanka started with the defeat of the LTTE three years ago, and the authorities feared that wanted persons too were boarding these vessels to seek refugee status in other countries.
The issue also came up for extensive discussions during the ‘Galle Dialogue’ – an international marine conference in mid-November last year, where Lanka called on regional Navies to work together in a bid to stamp out this scourge.