They wanted to realize their Australian dream. They were asked to pay Rs. 1.2 million in return: Rs. 200,000 before the journey and the rest once they found employment Down Under.
However, last Monday (28) morning, their dream was shattered when the Colombo Fraud Bureau arrested a group of 119 men ranging from 16 to 53 years old, who were reportedly preparing to migrate to Australia illegally.
The arrests were made in Negombo and Colombo, while they were travelling in vans to board a trawler.
The preparations for the journey had started more than two months ago, when an ‘agent’ started canvassing for people in the village of Udappuwa, off Chilaw.
“They were told with an initial payment of Rs. 200,000 they could start the journey,” a villager in the area told the Sunday Times. “It was a well known fact that people were trying to leave for Australia and that they were collecting money to go overseas,” he said adding that many of them were enthusiastic as the initial advance was Rs. 200,000.
|The group of 119 arrested men at the Colombo Fraud Bureau office at Wellawatte. Pix by M.S. Perera
|Some of the vans the group was travelling in when arrested
Many who opted for the journey were young fishermen who were out of employment and who were not aware of the risk involved. “We have at least saved them. The trawler they were to sail to Australia would not have been a new one,” Sergeant K.G. Dharmasena of the Colombo Fraud Bureau said, although they are yet to seize the vessel.
Among the arrested are the two main “operators” and four “collectors” who contacted the rest on behalf of the two key players. “They were mainly Tamils except for three Muslims and one or two Sinhalese,” Sergeant Dharmasena said, adding that the men were all from Udappuwa except for some of the facilitators.
The Sunday Times learns that one of the facilitators who is from Chilaw and owns an international school there is a suspect in a case involving forged documents. The other from Madurankuliya is a wealthy landed proprietor.
Sergeant Dharmasena added that the only possession the men had on them at the time of arrest were the clothes they were wearing. “Nothing, not even a toothbrush,” he revealed.
He dismissed the suggestion that there was another trawler carrying their belongings saying that it would cost them too much.
“Above all they wouldn’t look like asylum seekers then, but tourists,” he said.
But Police believe that there would have been another trawler to transport rations, water and oil.
This was in contrast to previous arrests where the would-be immigrants had chocolates, paracetomol, biscuits etc., with them.
“These operators wanted their smuggled humans to appear as beggars, in shabby clothes, un-shaven, with long hair, maybe even unfed to get the sympathy of the authorities,” he said.
The youngest of the group is a 16-year old boy and the oldest around 52, who had a deformity in one of his legs, Sergeant Dharmasena said adding if there were women and children in the group it may have given the impression that they were genuine asylum seekers.
“I would’nt say they are well-to-do. But they had a place to live and they had something to eat for sure,” he argued. Most of the men were fishermen except for two or three drivers, he said.
Although the trawler has not been seized so far, police believe that it would be a medium-sized one about 20 metres long. This kind of trawler lacks sleeping areas or proper sanitary facilities.
Seargeant Dharmasena said the passengers hadn’t received any form of acknowledgement for the money they had paid. They had no idea of the travel arrangements and didn’t seem to be worried about that.
Chief suspects remanded, others
released on bail
Of the 119 would-be immigrants 112 were released on bail by the Colombo Chief Magistrate Rashmi Singappuli when they were produced in court by the Colombo Fraud Bureau, on Tuesday, May 29.
The court however remanded till June 8, seven operators who were involved in organizing the voyage.
Human smuggling will not end as long as there is poverty, racial discrimination, corrupt Police officers and politicians and lack of good governance in this country, K.S. Ratnavel, counsel appearing for the would-be immigrants told the court when questioned about human trafficking in the country.
The smugglers’ story
Following the defeat of the LTTE, the incidents of human trafficking has increased, a lawyer appearing for suspected human smugglers told the Sunday Times.
Sanjeewa Gamage said human trafficking is a global business involving mafia groups and the LTTE was one of the major operatives in the country before it was defeated in 2009.
“After its defeat there were fewer cases of human trafficking but now it’s picking up again,” he said, adding that currently around ten such cases are pending before the Colombo Chief Magistrate’s Court.
According to him one of the cases involved 25 boat people bound for Australia along with the two main suspects involved in organizing the voyage. They were apprehended by the Navy in 2009 while patrolling in mid-sea off Dondra. They were handed over to the CID. Except for the two main two suspects the others were released.
The counsel added that his clients, the two suspects, had denied the charge that they had taken any money from the would-be migrants. However, five of the passengers who gave evidence said they had promised to give five lakhs each but eventually gave Rs. 200,000. They had promised to give the rest once they reached their destination.
“One of their defences is that they have not taken any money,” Mr. Gamaage said.
Another lawyer Wasantha Pitigala who defends suspects in the Magistrate’s Court said human smuggling first started in the 1980s when a lager number of people from Wennappuwa area started to migrate to Italy.
“It became an issue for the both the Italian and Sri Lanka governments,” he said. Subsequently, the Sri Lankan government amended the Immigrants and Migrants Act in 2006 to punish the smugglers, he said.
According to the amendment smugglers would get a minimum of a one to five year prison sentence. “It is very difficult to get bail for these offences,” he said. The suspects can go before the High Court to seek bail and the Court may grant bail only in exceptional circumstances, he noted.
“Usually the suspects languish in the remand prison for more than a year before they can get bail,” the lawyer said.
He said under the amendment the passengers can become State witness and give evidence against the smugglers.
These cases are mainly filed before the Colombo Chief Magistrate’s Court, Colombo Fort Magistrate’s Court and the Negombo Magistrate’s Court.
Counsel Pitigala said many of the illegal migrants had relatives to look after them once they got to their destinations. Most of them are mainly from the North and East, while others are from Wennappuwa, Mundel and Puttalam in the North-Western Province.
He said many of them had families to support and many of them mortgaged lands and houses to find the money.
Why do they leave our shores?
The lack of economic opportunities and rising cost of living are among the factors that propel people to migrate illegally, a spokesperson for the International Agency for Migration (IOM) in Sri lanka said.
Anuradhi Navaratnam, Senior Project Coordinator Counter Trafficking for IOM said the unemployment rate in Sri Lanka was last reported as 4.1 percent in the second quarter of 2011 according to the Department of Census and Statistics.
She said over the years there has been an increase in migration for overseas employment.
She said this factor is reflected in the 2010 statistics of the Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment, where there is an 8% increase in the total number of number of departures from 247,126 in 2009 to 266,445 in 2010.
However she said while there was an increase in female migration for employment in the past decades, recent years have shown a decrease.