Earlier last week, the local media reported that the Sri Lankan government had informed the Australian government that a merchant vessel Sun Sea carrying a few hundred of this country’s nationals – possibly seeking asylum - had sailed towards Australia. The media reports also suggested that a majority of the passengers on-board the ship were suspected to be former LTTE cadres.
|A group of illegal immigrants to Italy intercepted by the police being taken to Matara courts
Senaka Walgampaya, Sri Lankan High Commissioner in Canberra, was reported to have told the Australian government of the approaching ship which according to reports in sections of the Australian and Canadian media was to earlier travel to Canada but changed course due to technical problems. In a telephone conversation with the Sunday Times, from Canberra, later last week Mr Walgampaya said he was first apprised of the situation by a recent report in The Australian, according to which, “a people smuggling vessel carrying up to 300 asylum-seekers, and organized by remnants of the Tamil Tigers, could be on its way to Australia.” When we asked Mr Walgampaya if the Sri Lankan government had credible inputs from its own intelligence agencies on the matter, he said, “Yes, we do but I cannot disclose.” As of last Friday, the ship, according to him was on the “high seas off Thailand.” “There is evidence that ex-Tiger cadres have come here (Australia), in the past,” he further said.
According to sources in Colombo’s diplomatic community, the Sri Lankan High Commission in Canberra has typically become a fence-sitter in the political war between the Labour Party government of Australia and its main opposition Liberal Party over issues of immigration. The Sri Lankan government also faces flak from refugee activists in Australia who campaign for the segregation of security concerns (vis-a-vis terror operatives) from rights of genuine asylum-seekers.
As Australia received its first woman Prime Minister in a Labour shake-up last week, Phil Glendenning, director of the Edmund Rice Centre told the Australian media that he and other refugee advocates would “certainly like to see her (Prime Minister Julia Gillard) revisit that (the asylum issue) in her new role as the leader of the nation.” “When Ms Gillard was in the shadow immigration portfolio, she certainly approached the issue with compassion,” Mr Glendenning was quoted as telling journalists, as reported in the ABC Online.
Two months ago, the Australian government headed by outgoing Prime Minister Kevin Rudd had suspended until coming July, claims of asylum-seekers from Sri Lanka. Also, the suspension of claims from people from Afghanistan is on till October. Earlier, laws calling for up to 20 years of prison term for people smuggling had been introduced in the Australian Parliament. As many as 119 incidents of “irregular maritime arrivals” to Australia from Sri Lanka had been intercepted by the Australian authorities in 2009, while 19 such cases were reported in 2010. Sources in Colombo’s diplomatic community told Sunday Times that the Australian High Commission in Colombo may not like to comment on the subject of Sun Sea at this juncture, given also the change in the Labour leadership in Canberra. The sources however said that the Canadian government despite the sensitive nature of its relation with the Sri Lankan government seems to acknowledge that it is aware of developments.
“The Canadian government is of course aware of reports that have been in the public domain about possible boats of asylum-seekers but it does not as a rule comment in any specific way on the activities of Canadian intelligence agencies. Any such boats reaching the Canadian shores will be dealt with in accordance with well established Canadian law and practice,” the sources told Sunday Times. They added, “With the end of violent conflict in Sri Lanka, the Canadian government looks forward to improvement in some of the conditions that have led some Sri Lankans to resort to extreme measures to leave the Island.” Canadian newspapers such as the Vancouver Sun had reported in the weekend that the Canada Border Services Agency had found 25 of 76 men in a ship carrying possible immigrants from Sri Lanka, to be former Tamil Tigers. The ship – Ocean Lady – had been intercepted by Canadian authorities in October last year.
While officials in Sri Lanka’s Ministry of External Affairs said that they were informed about Sun Sea by the High Commission in Australia and that according to their information, the Royal Thai Navy had tried to intercept the ship but the passengers had threatened to jump off into the waters. The officials said that the ship was anchored somewhere between Thailand and Vietnam (as reported in The Australian almost 10 days earlier). Sri Lankan Navy spokesperson Captain Athula Senarath, maintained even last Thursday that he had no idea on the whereabouts of the ship.
“All I can say is that the ship is not on our waters,” he said, adding that the Sri Lankan Navy was keeping a close watch on the maritime borders. According to him, the ship would have taken off from the waters of another country, but he did not know which. He also said that illegal immigrants would not have left Sri Lanka from its waters. “We don’t know which country they were from. They may have flown to some other country first,” Captain Senarath said.
Meanwhile, according to official records, the Sri Lanka Navy had intercepted four boats carrying a total of 169 Sri Lankan citizens off the east coast last November. The raids were carried out over three days in a bid to foil attempts by the “illegal maritime” travellers. On November 27 last year, the Sri Lankan Navy had stopped a similar movement of 147 Sri Lankans. Subsequently, the Police took over investigations of all such cases. A senior Police officer told Sunday Times, “the detection of illegal immigrants, most of them heading to Australia in boats took place in several areas.” They included Tangalle (South), Chilaw (North-West), Batticaloa (East) and Beruwala (West).
According to sources in the CID, “not only were Sri Lankans trying to illegally leave the country but also foreigners such as Pakistanis and Afghan nationals who use Sri Lanka as a transit point.” Between September and October last year more than 500 Sri Lankans had attempted to illegally migrate to Europe, Australia, Canada and other Asian countries.