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Lankans comprise 10-15 percent of illegal immigrants to Australia:

Joint effort to roundup boat people

The recent reports about the detection of a number of boats trying to flee Australia from the Sri Lankan shores illegally has become a hot topic in Sri Lanka and Australia media.


Admiral Thisara Samarasinghe

The detections made by the Sri Lanka Navy and the Police show that over 90 percent of the illegal immigrants are from the Northern and Eastern part of Sri Lanka. Is there a reason for the Tamil people to leave Sri Lanka in such hurry and what is the main attraction for them in Australia to embark on such a risky journey is a matter of concern for us in Sri Lanka.

To get a clear view about this situation, the Sunday Observer interviewed Admiral Thisara Samarasinghe the Sri Lanka High Commissioner for Australia who possess a wide knowledge on the issue of human smuggling as the former Commander of the Sri Lanka Navy. Following are excerpts of the interview the Sunday Observer had with Sri Lanka High Commissioner in Australia Admiral Thisara Samarasinghe.

Q: The term ‘boat people’ is not a new thing for the Australian government and its people. But recent reports indicate that there is an increase in the number of boat people arriving in Australia. Being the Sri Lanka High Commissioner to Australia how do you observe this situation?

A: Boat arrivals are seasonal and circumstantial, depending on political approach and mechanism in place for prevention.

Australian Government proposal to carry out an offshore processing and a solution termed as “Malaysian solution” was stalled by the Opposition and the High Court of Australia. This current situation may be a contributory factor for people to seize the opportunity before any strict measures are adopted.

Q: Frequent reports indicate that a number of boats which arrived in Australia originated from Sri Lanka. How do you assess this situation with the information available to you from the Australian authorities about the number of ‘boat people’?

A: Sri Lanka gets undue attention when boats arrive in Australia. It is a fact that a few number of boats with Sri Lankans have arrived in Australia since January this year. But the numbers are only 10 – 15 p.c. of the total arrivals belonging to other countries. No one speaks of the balance 85 p.c., which suggests that certain agencies with vested interest propagate this publicity.

Q: Many of the people who are trying to flee Sri Lanka are from the Northern and Eastern part of the country and majority of them are Tamils. Do you think that there is a just reason for them to flee Sri Lanka at this stage?

A: There is no justifiable reason for any Sri Lankan to leave Sri Lanka by illegal means to Australia as the conditions in Sri Lanka does not warrant such action. I say this with first-hand knowledge of the amazing development that is taking place, especially in the North and East with respect to infrastructure development and empowerment of people at the grass roots levels to earn an honourable living.

I was in a unique position to compare and observe this when I travelled with the rest of my colleagues, almost 75 p.c. of the country during the recent program conducted for Heads of Sri Lanka Mission/Post.

Ninety percent of the conflict areas are now being developed to unprecedented levels. However, with the freedom of travel interaction and peaceful environment in Sri Lanka after 30 years, people even with fewer qualifications look for better life and more money which is common in economic migrants.

Q: As the Sri Lanka High Commissioner in Australia, you may have gathered information about the people arriving there from Sri Lanka by illegal means. What sort of message are they giving to the Australian government and the international community following their arrival in Australia?

A: Although I have not got any specific information from Australian authorities due to their privacy laws, what is obvious is that they give false and unsubstantiated information in support of their claim for refugee status especially to impress upon the officials.

There are networks from various organisations including LTTE front organisations to support the claims through lawyers who appear for them with various interests. The mere term ‘refugee’ is negative publicity.

Q: There is information to indicate that the LTTE diaspora operating internationally are behind these human smuggling rackets and making use of this as part of their international campaign. Do you think there is a basis for this claim?

A: Human smuggling is an international racket for criminals to earn money for various illegal purposes. One of LTTE’s main fund raisers was human smuggling and they are continuing to do the same through their front organisations.

The recent activities of LTTE front organisations clearly indicate that they are behind some of these arrivals and they make use of them for false negative publicity against Sri Lanka.

Q: The recent detection of illegal immigrants from Sri Lanka also indicates that Sri Lanka is becoming a transit point for the illegal immigrants bound to Australia. Your comments?

A: To my knowledge there isn’t much evidence on this issue of Sri Lanka being a transit point, although they have detected few individuals of other countries due to the close proximity.

Q: With the large number of people arriving in Australia by illegal means many people are impressed that it is an easy way of finding better vistas in their life in Australia. Do you think it is a good message that they are getting from these incidents?

A: This is not at all a good message for those who wish to come to Australia honourably. Such illegal arrivals will not be in the best interest of both countries.

Q: What are the encouraging factors on the part of the Australian government for these people to reach Australia taking such a risk?

A: Australia is a developed country with high living standards and a strong economy. Job opportunities are available for skilled and unskilled labour with good salaries.

The unofficial information is that 80 – 90 p.c. of such arrivals finally end up getting required authority to remain in Australia.

The good living conditions, facilities and financial support at Detention Centres, encouragement by relations and friends are also push factors. The Australian Government is committed to support genuine refugees after their assessment.

Q: Do you think that the Australian government is making an effort to discourage these people arriving there by illegal means risking their lives in the sea. If so, how effective are those measures?

A: Yes, the Australian Government is taking all possible efforts to deter and discourage illegal arrivals by way of off-shore processing and long procedures adopted to make the assessment. However, political and legal concerns have prevented such measures being implemented effectively. Australian law enforcement authorities at sea and on land are doing a tremendous job in implementing these policies and supporting such boats specially when in distress at sea.

Q: There are a lot of Sri Lankans waiting to get job opportunities, education and permanent residence in Australia through legal means. Do you think that processing of those request made through legal means will be affected due to this situation?

A: I personally feel such arrivals should not deter the genuine applicants who want to come to Australia legally and honourably.

It would be more prudent to relax current strict measures for such applicants so that people will be encouraged to take the legal path rather than the risky boat ride.

Q: What kind of dialogue is the Sri Lanka Government and the Australian Government continuing with regard to these illegal immigrants, and what kind of assistance is the Australian government extending to Sri Lanka in our effort to stop illegal immigrants originating from Sri Lanka?

A: Officials of the two governments are constantly in touch on this issue at various levels.

The Australian Government is very appreciative of the efforts taken by the Sri Lankan Navy and other relevant authorities. Hon.

Chris Bowen, Minister for Immigration and Citizenship of Australia recently visited Sri Lanka especially to convey their appreciation to the Govt. of Sri Lanka. However, whilst Sri Lanka Navy is continuing to do a professional job committing tremendous efforts, resources, time and money towards its border control, there are other areas that are being discussed with Australian authorities to assist in preventing deterring and discouraging illegal movements, from the Australian side.

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