The recent Australian Federal elections and the Easter Sunday bombings in Sri Lanka may have been contributing ‘push factors’ to the rise in the number of Sri Lankans attempting to reach Australia by sea, Head of Australia’s ‘Operation Sovereign Borders’ (OSB), Maj.Gen. Craig Furini, told the Sunday Times in an interview last week. “While the [...]


Australia by boat an exercise in futility- Australian Govt.


Australian High Commissioner David Holly

By Asiri Fernando

The recent Australian Federal elections and the Easter Sunday bombings in Sri Lanka may have been contributing ‘push factors’ to the rise in the number of Sri Lankans attempting to reach Australia by sea, Head of Australia’s ‘Operation Sovereign Borders’ (OSB), Maj.Gen. Craig Furini, told the Sunday Times in an interview last week.

“While the Easter Sunday bombings and the Australian Federal elections may have been ‘push’ and ‘pull’ factors, there may be other factors, not yet clear, that may have contributed,” he pointed out.

“Since the Federal elections in May this year, Australian authorities intercepted 38 Sri Lankans in three boats, and promptly returned them to Sri Lanka,” Furini said. During the same time period, the Sri Lanka Navy (SLN) rescued 41 Sri Lankans enroute to Australia by sea, when their fishing trawler was found adrift due to engine trouble. “This highlights the dangers of long sea journeys in boats that are not designed to carry passengers,” said Maj.Gen. Furini commenting on SLN’s rescue of the marooned Sri Lankans. “An illegal boat journey is as pointless as it is dangerous,” he added.

The Senior Australian military officer in charge of securing her borders and preventing human smuggling, was in Colombo as part of an ongoing programme with Sri Lanka, to deter and prevent people trying to reach Australia by boat. Australia has launched a “Zero Chance” message campaign in 11 countries, to deter would-be boat arrivals and to educate them of the risks and safety concerns in making the journey.

Since 2013, the Australian Government initiated a combined law enforcement and military operation aimed at “stopping the boats”. Australia introduced strict immigration policies a few years ago, after an influx of asylum seekers, or economic migrants, began to arrive on Australian shores. The Australian Border Protection Force and OSB bring 16 Australian government agencies under one umbrella organisation, to carry out border control, customs compliance and stop illegal immigration.

These tough immigration policies and subsequent offshore detention of asylum-seekers, including women and children, have attracted criticism from many human rights groups, but the policy enjoys widespread domestic support in Australia, while this immigration policy remains a key political issue.

Last week, Maj.Gen. Furini accompanied by Australian High Commissioner (AHC) to Sri Lanka, David Holly, and SLN Director General Operations, Rear Admiral Nirajna Atigala, visited the fisheries harbour in Negombo, to warn of the dangers of attempting illegal migration to Australia.

The visit came in the backdrop of Australian media reports of Home Affairs Minister Perter Dutton’s expressing concern about the recent spike in arrivals. However, the AHC denied that the visit was spurred by the recent increase. “It is part of our ongoing engagement with the Sri Lanka Government (SLG),” he said, and pointed out that any spike would be of concern. “We find that the SLG is responding very closely and we have cooperation on intelligence sharing,” he said, explaining that both countries work closely to identify, deter and intercept human smuggling efforts.

Speaking on Sri Lankan cooperation, Maj.Gen. Furini pointed out that human smuggling from Sri Lanka is a concern where both countries interest clearly intersect. “I am very comfortable that the SLG is doing all that it can on this issue,” he said. “The SLN, Sri Lanka Air Force, Sri Lanka Coastguard (SLCG), Law enforcement and Intelligence agencies are working diligently to disrupt and prevent human smuggling Mr. Holly said. Maj.Gen. Furini pointed out that OSB, at its heart, is about deterrence and prevention.

In Colombo: Head of Australia’s 'Operation Sovereign Borders' (OSB), Maj.Gen. Craig Furini. Pix by Amila Gamage

“Sri Lanka and Australia have a solid partnership which is successful in combating people smuggling and transnational border crime,” said Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), in a press release on the visit. According to the MFA, a Joint Working Group (JWG) on People Smuggling and Transnational Crime, between Sri Lanka and Australia, has been established as the principle forum to address people-smuggling and human-trafficking cooperation. Sri Lanka and Australia has had an MoU governing cooperation on human smuggling since 2014.

Australia recently gifted 2 patrol vessels to the SLN and several boats to the SLCG. Mr. Holly did not give details of ongoing programmes and future assistance, except to say that Australia and Sri Lanka coordinate capacity building, communication, training and other matters related to cooperation on the subject through the JWG. The Sunday Times learned that the Australian Government is assisting Sri Lanka to plan and establish an Integrated Border Management System to better secure and control her borders, ports and airports.

“Further, Sri Lanka and Australia are in the early stages of planning an MoU on the ‘Return and Readmission of Persons’, with the focus on safe and orderly return of Sri Lankans from Australia,” a senior MFA official, who wished to remain anonymous, told the Sunday Times.

“Prior to returning those who arrive by boat, Australia ensures that correct assessments are conducted and international Legal obligations met,” said Maj.Gen. Furini. However, he declined to comment about a follow-up mechanism to check on the returnees. Furini would not comment on details on how those who are intercepted are processed, except to say they are very quickly returned to Sri Lanka.

Commenting on those who organise such boat journeys, Maj.Gen. Furini pointed out that, to the smugglers, the passengers are just another commodity and don’t care for them, as they have already made their money. AHC Holly pointed out that the smugglers pitch various marketing strategies to get vulnerable people to make the perilous journey.

As a part of ‘Zero Chance’, Maj.Gen. Furini announced that a film festival will be hosted by the Australian Government, where Sri Lanka will have the opportunity to submit short films on the dangers and consequences of attempting to illegally migrate to Australia by boat.

“We won’t stop in our efforts to ensure that people across Sri Lanka understand that illegal maritime travel is just not worth the risk to their lives or the financial burden,” Maj.Gen. Furini said, stressing that ‘there is zero chance of illegal migration to Australia.’

Temporary reprieve for Lankan family facing imminent deportation

The Legal struggle over a Lankan family held in detention on Christmas Island, took another twist on Friday, with the Australian Federal Court ruling that the family could stay at least till September 18. The ruling by Justice Mordy Bromberg in Melbourne, restrains the Government from forcibly removing the family, until an interlocutory hearing is held by the 18th.

The family, which had settled in the Queensland town of Biloela, includes 2-year-old Tharunicaa, her 4-year-old sister Kopika and her parents Priya and Nadesalingam. Australian courts, including the High Court, previously found that the parents and their eldest child (Kopika) were not refugees and did not qualify for Australia’s protection.

Meanwhile, Angela Fredericks, a friend of the family, has launched an online emergency fund to raise AUS$ 300,000, to help the family cover possible debt, if they are returned to Sri Lanka. The online campaign launched on the website has raised nearly AUS$ 93,000, aided by nearly 1,800 donors at the time of print.

Responding to accusations by Tamil activists in Australia, who claim that the Tamil family runs the risk of persecution and torture, if returned, a senior Foreign Ministry official told the Sunday Times that no person would be persecuted on return to Sri Lanka and that, the Sri Lankan High Commission in Canberra has consistently conveyed that message to the Australian authorities.

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