Amidst a booming row over the superspy handbag, President Chandrika Kumaratunga searches for something in her handbag during a meeting at the President's House on Friday for national consultation on the ethnic issue.
Pic by J. Weerasekera


Buster overturns the boats
SSP digs deep into routes of people smuggling

By Chandani Kirinde
Upto120 mostly young males are packed into a small fishing trawler modified into a passenger carrier during a sea journey which would take at least five weeks. The vessels are mostly old and unseaworthy. There is only one toilet and food supplies often run low. But the fare could be something like what a person would spend to travel first class on a cruise liner.

Far away from home and Italy
The latest boatload of 147 Lankans taking the illegal sea route to Italy instead of reaching the promised land are still far away from their destination languishing in a Jeddah jail after their vessel strayed into Saudi waters.

According to a Foreign Ministry official family members of the stranded boat people have  been asked to pay around Rs40,000 as the air fare to bring them home.

So far only 16 families have paid and their relatives are scheduled to be brought back next week.

The others will have to stay on till their air fare is paid.

Tightening the nets
According to SSP Peiris several steps have been taken to curb human smuggling:

* Extra coastal surveillance by the Sri Lanka Navy and full scale investigations by police

*Close co-operation with foreign governments facing similar problems.

*New laws to make human smuggling a serious crime

* Bringing about more public awareness by highlighting the terrible fate that has befallen so many.


Call it the lure of the Lira or seeking out of greener pastures but thousands of Sri Lankans are risking their lives to make a perilous sea journey to Italy year after year. And the risk involved seems to have deterred them little.

The problem of sea borne illegal immigrants reaching the shores of Europe has escalated to such an extent in the past two years that several of these countries have asked the Sri Lankan government to take immediate steps to break up the organized gangs involved in this trade.
Much of the organized form of human smuggling in Sri Lanka had begun around 1997 when most of the people were taken to destinations in Italy, Australia and Japan. Even though human traffic to Australia and Japan appears to have been curtailed due to a crackdown by the authorities there, human smuggling to Italy is continuing.

"It's like the Chinese restaurants. One or two people started and many others followed. It's the same with the human smuggling. One person managed to successfully smuggle a group of illegal immigrants and make a big buck and many others followed. It has become a lucrative business now," according to Senior Superintendent Lucky Peiris.

SSP Peries was hand-picked by the Acting IGP T. Anandarajah to investigate the modus operandi of human trafficking between Sri Lanka and Europe. Since he began work with a select number of men, several of the big gangs have been busted and at least three of the leaders are behind bars. Some 40 others linked to human smuggling are also in custody. Some of the other operators have gone underground. "Earlier they were operating openly now they are doing it on the sly, "SSP Peiris said.

He along with two police inspectors visited Egypt, France and Italy recently to get first hand information on how the smugglers operate at that end.

A startling startling discovery made by the investigators was that most of the kingpins behind the operations were Russian educated and had close contacts with captains of Russian fishing trawlers which could be quickly turned into human smuggling vessels.

Earlier the prospective immigrants were flown to Russia and then smuggled overland to more prosperous countries in Europe. But that process came to a halt due to tough border control.

"Since then the operators started smuggling people through the sea route mainly from Negombo, Galle and Dondra", SSP Peries said. Negombo fisherfolk told The Sunday Times that in recent times several big boats had gone missing apparently robbed for people smuggling operations.

Sri Lanka has also now become a starting point for people from other countries such as Pakistan, Bangladesh and India. They also pay large amounts of money to board these vessels to find their way to Europe. They are known to pay as much as Rs500,000 for a boat trip to Italy and Rs700,000 to Australia.

Some of the passengers pay half down and the rest on completion of the trip while others are known to mortgage family houses or land.

"Our investigations reveled that some of the local agents have their representatives in Italy itself and they keep track of those who haven't paid all the money and make sure that they do so in time. This is another worrying fact. Some of those who have reached those countries are fugitives from here," SSP Peries said.

Many of those leaving now, are not seeking asylum but are looking for work Earlier many were fleeing the ethnic conflict but now it is purely for economic reasons.

"Many see their friends go abroad and return in a few years and build big houses buy expensive cars and live a life of luxury and the others naturally want to follow. There are also many who have a family member in these countries and are eager to join them.

The investigators have traced the route taken by the smugglers by questioning fishermen , many of whom who have become involved in human trafficking. "We found many maps. Some of the fishermen are so well versed in sea faring that they are able to tell at which latitude and longitude the trawler transporting persons is on a particular day after its departure from our shores, the police officer said.

Italy has become the easiest destination as it is the first European country on the smugglers route. The boats after leaving Sri Lanka pass the Minicoy island across the Arabian Sea, then the Red Sea , the Suez Canal and the Egyptoan port Port Said before reaching Sicily.

The smugglers have agents in Egypt whom they contact while at mid sea, and these agents meet them in smaller boats to provide more food and fuel.

As the trawlers stay clear off the territorial waters of Egypt, the authorities there too are unable to detain them as it would be a violation of international laws governing the seas.

Although most of the crew and passengers are detected in Sicily and put behind bars for 30 days as the law there requires, once they leave jail many of them get through to other cities Rome and Milan or other countries in Europe.

" Those who are lucky enough to survive the journey and reach their destination are doing well but the risks they take are not worth it. There is no great wealth waiting for them there. It takes them many years of hard work to make enough money and live in prosperity, SSP Peries pointed out.

The Sri lankan government has suggested to several European countries that some quota system be worked out so that unskilled workers, can have legal means of entering these countries and work there as there is a big demand for that kind of labour.

"That way people will not have to risk their lives and spend huge sums of money to leave the country illegally. It will also put an end to this kind of illegal activity," the SSP pointed out.

For the time being though, the Italian authorities have offered technical assistance to Sri Lanka so that human smuggling could be detected and stopped in Lankan waters. The Egyptian authorities too have said they would assist in every possible manner.

PM's arrival not for journalists

Journalists, including TV crews, were shut out of the Katunayake Airport when they came there to cover the return of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe from the United States yesterday.

Journalists said they were told to stay at least 100 meters away from the VIP lounge when the Premier arrived around 5. 55 a.m.. It was not clear whether the order came from the Prime Minister's security division or the airport security.

Anti-filaria campaign today

Officers of the Public Health Department will be going house to house in Colombo city today to offer preventive treatment for filariasis .

The department has requested the people to stay at home to enable wide coverage of the treatment aimed at eradicating filariasis.

The treatment includes three 100mg tablets of Hetrazan and a tablet of Albendasole for an adult and three 50mg tablets of Hetrazan and a dose of Albendasole for children aged 2 -12 years.

The campaign will begin at the Bamabalapitiya Government Flats where the first two doses of treatment will be given to the public by Mayor Prasanna Gunawardena and Deputy Mayor Azath Sally.

The programme coordinated with the Anti Filariasis Campaign and the World Health Organisation is having 2,400 volunteers to cover the entire city. Each volunteer is expected to cover 50 houses.

Meanwhile, the Public Health Department which is continuing its programmes to fight dengue, has prosecuted Zahira College for failing to clean up its premises despite warning.

Chief Medical Officer Dr. Pradeep Kariyawasam said two more schools were also on the cards to be taken to courts, and a decision on it would be taken tomorrow.

Prisoner transfer on A9 road
The first transfer of prisoners along the A9 road took place yesterday when six prisoners were moved to Vavuniya and Anuradhapura prisons from Jaffna, a Prisons Department official said.

He said that from Muhamalai until Omanthai the LTTE provided escort to the prisoners.

Back to Top
 Back to Index  

Copyright © 2001 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd. All rights reserved.