Spotlight turns again on human smuggling

RANDOM THOUGHTS By Neville de Silva

Writing the Bangkok newspaper “The Nation” last October I regretted the failure of the UNDP’s “Human Development Report 2009” to pay even minimal attention to the transnational crime of human smuggling while commenting exclusively on the issue of migration.

The report 112-paged, titled “Overcoming Barriers: Human mobility and development” paid scant attention to the subject despite the fact that UNDP’s call for better and equal treatment for migrants could have been affected by the increasing incidence of human smuggling. The UNDP in its wisdom devoted just two pages to human trafficking- as distinct from human smuggling- and in that a couple or so paragraphs referred to people smuggling.

File Photo: MV Sun Sea with the refugees on board.

I was hardly to know that shortly after my observations, human smuggling would blow into a major issue for two of the target countries for would-be refugees. Interestingly the two countries are literally poles apart. But both Australia and Canada are viewed by asylum seekers as the two most favoured nations because of their more liberal policies towards refugees and other humanitarian concerns. In fact Canada has for quite some time been seen as a “soft touch” and would-be refugees with the most dubious stories gain admission to the country.

From the entry of the human smuggling ship “Ocean Lady” into Canadian waters last October carrying 76 Sri Lankan Tamil refugees, to the multiple marine forays to breach Australia’s ‘cordon sanitaire’ over several months to the dramatic 10-week journey of the “MV Sun Sea” to Canada with 492 supposedly Sri Lanka Tamils on board, the human smuggling story has become the stuff of fiction and numerous media minutes and column inches. It has also had political fallout in Australia and Canada with constant calls for the two nations to rethink their migration policies and tighten up on their legal regimes which have been exploited over the years by economic migrants along with refugees claiming persecution and discrimination in their own lands.

The epic journey of the “Sun Sea” with the single largest cargo of people in recent memory prompted Canada’s Public Safety Minister Vic Toews to denounce this smuggling operation as part of a “broader criminal enterprise.” His officials have labelled it an operation mounted by the Tamil Tigers (LTTE), a Sri Lankan separatist group banned in Canada and several other countries as a terrorist organization. This confirms common Sri Lankan thinking that Tamil Tigers and their supporters abroad are returning to transnational crimes in the hope of rebuilding and re-financing their movement following the LTTE’s military annihilation some 18 months ago.

A report in “The Australian” newspaper (September 29) underlines the magnitude and the spread of the human smuggling operation. Journalist Paul Maley who has been following the story closely and often called me in Bangkok to check details, wrote that Australian and Thai authorities are on the alert for another human smuggling operation organized by the same Tiger group responsible for the “Sun Sea” venture. Maley said Thai government sources had confirmed they were looking for a boat carrying about 15 ex-Tigers that had sailed from India. The boat would drop off those wishing to go to Canada in Thailand to pick up another ship to make the journey while the rest would head for Australia.

It is not just the transnational character of human smuggling that is troubling. Its ramifications are much wider and could have political and social repercussions for recipient nations while impacting on other nations too. It breeds criminal syndicates and makes possible the movement of terrorists and terrorist supporters and for drug trafficking, matters that recipient countries such as Australia and Canada need worry about.

Sri Lanka and Australia have already entered into an arrangement on mutual consultation and assistance to stamp out human smuggling. Sri Lanka has also proposed a similar arrangement with Canada. Canada has already appointed Ward Elcock, a former head of Canadian intelligence as a “special envoy” to deal with human smuggling. His visits to Sri Lanka, Thailand and other countries in this region have been delayed for personal reasons.

While bilateral co-operation is helpful in trying to minimize people smuggling a much wider cooperative effort encompassing several countries in the Southeast Asian region is essential to stem the tide of the illicit movement of people. The would-be refugees might come from Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran or elsewhere, as records show. But often the genesis of the operation lies in the Southeast Asian region. Investigating the background to the “MV Sun Sea” saga Canada’s Globe and Mail journalist Mark MacKinnon wrote that the ship was bought from its Thai owners by a Sri Lankan named Christhurajah Kunarobinson who paid 5.35 million baht for the ramshackle vessel.

Recently an Australian court sentenced to five years a Sri Lankan Tamil refugee for helping to smuggle nearly 200 asylum seekers. He had acted as an agent for an Indonesian-based Sri Lankan and had arranged the passage for 20 Sri Lankan Tamil men by boat from Malaysia to Australia. Other reports have talked of a well known-Indonesia human smuggler who was responsible for trying to illicitly land a large group of asylum seekers in Australia.

In all these cases and several others Southeast Asia figures at some stage in the smuggling operation. While the Bali Process first launched in 2002 by Australia and Indonesia for the specific reason of tackling human smuggling and trafficking acknowledged the need for a collaborative effort to deal with this issue has made some progress, one wonders whether this has been enough. In some countries human smuggling might not even be an offence.

Since the countries mentioned above are members of the Association of South East Asian Nations should not ASEAN be pushing for a more effective collaborative effort to snuff out this menace that affects not only the target nations but themselves too? One step might be to have a common ASEAN law on human smuggling that hands out very heavy penalties for those engaging in this. Unlike human trafficking which could be within the borders of one country, people smuggling is essentially across borders and hence transnational.

This is the very reason why any action to curb this must be a collective effort and the sooner UN agencies and regional organizations step up collaboration the faster this menace could be minimized if not ended.

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Spotlight turns again on human smuggling


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