While Australia and Indonesia are engaged in diplomacy to resolve the problem of the growing number of Sri Lankan asylum seekers drifting into their seas, the people-smuggling racket originating from the eastern coast of Sri Lanka is continuing unabated, the Sunday Times learns.
Young men desperate to get away from the country are paying anything between Rs. 150,000 to Rs. 500,000 to board a deep-sea fishing trawler with the hope they can make it to Australia and claim asylum there. The money is paid to a middleman, after which the asylum seekers are given short notice to meet at a particular point to board the boat.
More than 600 persons are reported to have already left on the perilous route, according to Rest House owners in Batticaloa who provide shelter to the men till the day of their departure arrives.
One young man who is waiting his chance to board a boat after having failed to get on the last one that left Batticaloa two weeks ago, said, that in spite of the defeat of the LTTE, he feels unsafe and thinks he will have a better life in Australia.
“We know that once we get there, we will not be sent back. I am hopeful of getting there and in a few years I will help my family members to do the same,” said Nirmalan, a 34 year-year-old man from Passekudah. The trip is estimated to take 13 days during which time they would be given cooked meals on board.
With the east coast becoming the new launching pad for human smugglers, Police in the area are trying to track down those behind the operation.
DIG (Eastern range –Central) Edison Gunatillake confirmed that since the defeat of the LTTE, the eastern coast has become the setting-off-point for those trying to leave the country illegally.
“Some people are encouraging people to leave the country in this manner so that it gives a negative picture of the situation of the north-east, even after things have returned to normal. There is an organized group of people behind this and we are investigating to find out who they are,” DIG Guantillake said.
On Thursday police apprehended one person in the Batticaloa area in a trawler that had met with a mishap before the perilous journey. There were more people on board, but they had got off, when the trawler met with the accident. He is being questioned now to ascertain the modus operandi of the agents behind the human-smuggling trade, he added.
The issue has now gained international significance after the latest boat-load of 78 asylum seekers were picked up by An Australia customs ship “ Oceanic Viking” in Indonesian waters two weeks ago. They are since stranded in Indonesian waters with neither country willing to accommodate them.