The boat that was apprehended off the Hambantota coast on Sunday last week, with a load of would-be immigrants to Australia, had originated from Trincomalee. Police and naval investigations reveal it sailed to the south disguised as a fishing trawler.
According to investigations, the boat had been out at sea for at least two weeks, after it left a beachhead somewhere in Trincomalee, before docking in at Hambantota harbour to replenish supplies such as water, diesel, food and other essential items needed for the 2,000 mile-long voyage towards the Australian coast.
Investigators have found out that there is a well organised syndicate operating a multi-million rupee human smuggling ring that extends from the south to the east and north, where agents seek clients interested in going overseas in search of greener pastures.
|The apprehended boat and the crew
According to Officer-in-Charge (OIC) - Galle Harbour Police, Inspector of Police (IP) Nishan de Silva, the group of 17 that were picked up at Hambantota, included a six-member crew, and hailed from different parts of the country. They were brought to Galle in batches and kept in a safe-house.
Later, after dusk, they were taken separately in small boats and loaded onto the fishing vessel anchored several miles off the coast. Each illegal immigrant had paid between Rs 300,000 to 500,000 for the trip, IP de Silva added.
The entire group was later handed over to the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) who are conducting further investigations.
Naval spokesman Kosala Warnakulasuriya told the Sunday Times that the boat would have slipped through the net, if not for the World Cup match between Sri Lanka and Canada being played at the Mahinda Rajapaksa Stadium in Suriyawewa on that particular day.
“As an additional security measure for the game, the Navy deployed three fast attack craft in the vicinity, and hence were able to detect the fishing vessel sailing quietly through the darkness towards the Australian coast”, he said.
“The vessel was apprehended and towed to the Galle fisheries harbour, where it was handed over to the local police for further action”, he said.
Since the end of the war, the Navy had arrested some 117 persons sailing for Australia in similar circumstances, all paying large sums to their handlers for the trip.
In the single largest detection in 2009, the Navy, in a well-coordinated operation, was able to nab four day-fishing trawlers with some 100 persons aboard, all heading for the Australian coast.
He warned the public not to fall prey to the agents of this ‘human smuggling’ syndicate, since their promises of lucrative employment in Australia amounts to nothing, when one considers the risks involved.
“At the end of the day, you lose your money and must also serve a jail term for violating the country’s immigration laws”, Commander Warnakulasuriya added.
However, other officials suspect that this is only the tip of the iceberg. “The problem is very much bigger. We believe that, in the case at Hambantota, the group would have been loaded into a larger mother ship anchored in international waters with more immigrants.
“It is hard to believe that this small fishing vessel could have made the trip to the Australian coast on its own. There is more to it that needs further investigations”, they said
With human smuggling between the two countries on the rise, with the end of the war, the Australian government told Colombo to do what it can to stop the menace.
So much so that, in July 2009, Canberra sent its Minister for Immigration & Emigration Chris Evans to Sri Lanka for urgent talks to tackle the issue.
Mr. Evans, during his visit, thanked the local authorities for its detection of illegal immigrants and offered whatever assistance is needed to further work towards this end.