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Refugees risk their lives on:

Voyage of death

The recent news about boat loads of refugees heading towards Australia capsizing in the Indian ocean killing hundreds of people, some hundreds of kilometres away from the Christmas island in the Australian border sent shock waves across the globe giving a clear message to those who risk their lives to reach Australia seeking better vistas in their life. According to Australian officials, a boat carrying around 150 suspected asylum seekers capsized on Wednesday (June 27) between Indonesia and Australia's Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean.

Director General of Immigration and Emigration
Chulananda Perera,

Admiral Thisara
Samarasinghe

 

The Australian media quoting officials of the Australian Maritime Safety Authority confirmed that rescuers have been able to save 130 people from where the ship capsized, about 200 km north of Australia's Christmas Island. Authorities say one body has been recovered, and several others could still be missing.

In an earlier incident which was reported not less than one week before June 27 incident, another boat headed for Australia carrying more than 200 asylum seekers capsized in the same area, killing up to 90 people. Fortunately it has been confirmed that no Sri Lankans were among the boat people which capsized on their way to Australia.

The tragic end of these asylum seekers in the middle of the Indian ocean while heading towards Australia expecting a better life became an eye opener to many Sri Lankans also as hundreds of them are seeking illegal means to arrive in Australia spending their life long wealth to human smugglers.

But they were not the first boat loaded with asylum seekers headed towards Australia which capsized in the sea. In December 2011, around 200 people died when an overcrowded boat sank off the coast of East Java. In 2010, 50 asylum seekers died when their boat was thrown onto rocks at Christmas Island. In 2001, a crowded boat known as the SIEV X sank on its way to Australia with the loss of 350 lives. Despite, all these tragic stories people still have not given up their attempts to reach Australia by illegal means as more than 50 boats carrying more than 4,000 asylum seekers have been detected by Australian authorities so far this year.

But this is happening while many Governments are making tireless efforts to avoid illegal immigrants heading towards Australia from their soils.

Intercepted

From the Sri Lanka side, the Sri Lanka Navy on June 12, intercepted a multi-day fishing trawler bound for Australia in the seas off Arugambay. The trawler, manned by a four-member Sinhalese crew, had 47 Sri Lankan Tamils and 2 Indian nationals on board, who had intended to enter Australia illegally. Following their arrest Police also arrested another 26 people 21 Afghans, five Pakistani nationals using Sri Lanka as a transit point.

The capsized boat off Christmas Island in December 2011

Earlier the Colombo Fraud Investigations Bureau (CFIB) in a tactical operation arrested 112 would-be illegal immigrants and seven human smugglers who were attempting to travel to Australia from Galle Face and Negombo. In February this year also Sri Lanka Navy has arrested 17 Sri Lankans while they were attempting to illegally travel to Australia in a trawler about 20 nautical miles off Hambantota coast.

The Australian media has exposed that well-organised human smuggling racketeers are running this business of bringing these people to Australia by boats after obtaining money from them. The Four Corners program broadcast by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation recently exposed a network of people smugglers living and operating in Australia believed to be led by a man known as Captain Emad.

The Sydney Morning Herald on June 15 reported that Sri Lankan asylum seekers are being promised Australian citizenship, but for many it will be a voyage to their deaths.

The Sri Lankan High Commissioner in Australia Admiral Thisara Samarasinghe expressing his views on this situation said that the boat arrivals to Australia have increased during the past 6 months causing concerns at national level in Australia.

Earlier Admiral Thisara Samarasinghe had told the Sydney Morning Herald that the arrival of boats is a major international racket which has now become a fact.

" I have explained the critical importance of getting to the bottom of the international human smuggling network aimed at getting people of interest to Australia and also as a fund raiser for illegal activities especially by terrorist organisations. Terrorist organisations using Human Smuggling as a main Fund raising avenue was explained with past experience", he added.

He said the cooperation in exchanging information and intelligence of boat people was also emphasised as critical to curbing of such movements. This is an obstacle as per certain laws in Australia.

"A high percentage of boat people receiving bridging visas after detention and finally leading to citizenship is one of the strongest incentives in addition to push factors of good accommodation, good living standards, friends, relations, sympathisers and organisational interests. Pleasing asylum seekers is also an encouraging factor", he added.

Deterrence and preventive action is considered essential at both ends as well as en route to curb illegal and risky movements.

Appreciative

The High Commissioner said the Australian Government is appreciative of Sri Lanka's effort in stopping boat movements during the past 2 1/2 years and the cooperation with Immigration authorities. Interaction with above officials is frequent and cordial.

"However, they were concerned of recent arrival of four boats with Sri Lankans to Cocos and Christmas Islands of Australia.

He said effective measures taken and multiple resources committed by Sri Lankan government and specially the Sri Lankan Navy and Police were explained in detail and he has sited the recent preventative attempts of possible asylum seekers on May 28th and June 12th in Sri Lanka. He noted that asylum seekers from many other countries too come to Australia but publicity at times unfairly is focused at Sri Lanka through organisations with vested interests.

"There are many aspects to the boat people arriving in Christmas island in the Australian territorial waters. As Australia is signatory to the Geneva Convention on Refugees they are bound to accept the asylum seekers. To protect the human rights they are being treated well and they are being kept under detention for some years until they investigate their claims for refugee status", he added. According to him these Tamil people have their relations in Australia and they get lawyers to appear for them to get refugee status.

"The message they are getting is that by this way they can reach Australia and they can get asylum in Australia. This situation has provided better vistas for the human smugglers and the Australia has provided a good platform for these human smugglers to get advantage out of this situation", he added. He said earlier people used to migrate to Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia and then boarded on to boats to reach Australia. "But with the Sri Lanka Immigration tightening the rules and regulation at the Katunayake airport, chances are very low for them to depart from Sri Lanka using forged passports", he added.

Sri Lanka Immigration and Emigration Department is now working with Regional Airline Liaison Officers Network to create barriers for the illegal immigrants to go through the Airport in Sri Lanka.

Business

"Therefore this has now turned into a business of sending people from here to Australia since it is easy to go to Australia from Sri Lanka. After this situation was known to the people in the region they also try this after arriving in Sri Lanka by legal means. That is how Sri Lanka has also become a hub for this human smuggling racket", he said. To tackle this situation the Immigration and Emigration Department has a big responsibility.

"Under our new visa system we have given some freedom for those who are arriving in Sri Lanka as tourists. But due to this situation we have to inquire from them about their genuine reason for their arrival in Sri Lanka. We have to filter them thoroughly before giving them tourist visa", he added. He said the Immigration and Emigration Department is also having closer contacts with the Australian Government and the Australian Government is assisting Sri Lanka to train Immigration officers.

"But to stop this the Australian government also should take steps from their side without welcoming these illegal immigrants with open arms. They have to take deterrent measures", Perera said.

"To stop this people have to be educated about the futility of this voyage they are taking, risking their lives. The Navy and the Police are playing their role in the land and the sea since the Immigration and Emigration Department has no capacity to stop people going by sea", he said. "We are going to introduce new amendments to the Immigration and Emigration Act to give stiff punishments for those found guilty of human smuggling handling and facilitators", he added.

Approved

"The Legal Draftsman's Department has already approved these amendments and they have sent the amendments for our observation. We have already sent our observations and we hope this Amendment Bill would be presented in the Parliament in another one or two months period", he added.

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