The risk laden voyage of 17 days, seeking greener pastures: Perilous Perquisition | Sunday Observer

The risk laden voyage of 17 days, seeking greener pastures: Perilous Perquisition

The sea has been a frontier to reckon with, for centuries. We have all heard tales of defiant master mariners, sailing through the storms in daring conquest. Exotic tales of captivating mermaids and dragons that exhale fire! The fierce tale of the great white shark, Moby Dick, engulfed us in fear and excitement. Ahoy, that era of sailing is no more.

Today, people have begun to take to the seas, not as mariners, but, as failed citizens seeking a form of economic liberation and solace in foreign nations. The dangerous quest in search of Christmas Island plagued some of our citizens. Today, thankfully, there is a sharp decrease.

To get to the bottom of this ocean of deception, I navigated myself into the famous ‘Fourth Floor’ of the CID (Criminal Investigation Department) where I met up with the officer in charge of Interpol - ASP Ranjith Wedisinghe, and the OIC of the Maritime Smuggling Investigation Unit, Inspector Wijethunga. Both these gentlemen are bright detectives, who shared their experience in preventing the next boatload of folks, sailing in futile hope.

Seeking asylum during the past three decades was a million dollar (and Euro) industry, with prime agents and sub agents located all over the island. Of course, there were people in genuine need of asylum. Yet, many are fraudulent souls, who began their illegal journey with forged documents.

As the law enforcement agencies increased surveillance, and embassies tightened visa conditions, the desperate sons of Sri Lanka turned to the sea. Making use of the large scale fishing industry that operates hundreds of multi day trawlers, the agents set about establishing scouts to lure weary men and women into the promise of a luxury life, with the assurance of a much higher wage. Thus, the unsuspecting individuals would borrow money or sell their lands and jewellery and board the trawlers, on a voyage of death. Negombo and Wennapuwa soon became hot spots for these under cover boat missions.

The Police soon realized it was the work of an organized syndicate (11 syndicates have been detected and members arrested to date) and established the Maritime Smuggling Investigation Unit on 5 July 2010. This unit works closely with Navy Intelligence and monitors the noted stretches of coast. The usual route to Christmas Island is via Indonesia – Malaysia - Australia. The risk laden voyage takes around 17 days. The fees charged per passenger ranges from Rs 8 lakhs to 15 lakhs.

The modus operandi of the agent begins with purchasing a boat on the pretext of deep sea fishing. The vessel is registered with the local Fisheries authority. They then recruit a skipper and a crew of five, who are somewhat familiar with the desired route, often depending only on GPS points as they are not qualified navigators or sailors. As the 17 day voyage makes progress, by day number 10 the cramped passengers are fed with only biscuits and water. Knowing very well the dangers of the voyage, they still desire to sail.

Inspector Wijethunga said, most of these passengers come from Beruwela, Batticaloa, Jaffna,Trinco,Tangalle, Negombo and as far as Mullaithivu. Since 2010, the Police and Navy have successfully detected 7,000 people who tried to leave our shores, and ended up in a greater mess than before.

There were incidents when the overloaded boats capsized and many drowned. Some were rescued by the navies of the countries where the incidents took place. If the vessel did make it to Christmas Island, at one stage the passengers were kept in detention centres. In the past few years, they have all been deported back to Sri Lanka. All passengers apprehended by Police are produced before a Magistrate within 24 hours, charged under section 34/35/45/45C of the IME Act and released on bail, after being finger printed and photographed. The agents have their bank accounts frozen. The agents and crew face a travel ban. The boats are handed over to the Navy. Naval media spokesman Captain Akram Alavi disclosed the following statistics of detection -

Year -              Boat people on board

2009 -             7, 176

2011 -             3 70

2012 -             62, 3008

2013 -             16, 1019

2014 -              3, 132

2015 -              2 82

2016 -               1 17

 

The Australian Federal Police has made a great effort to work alongside local law enforcement forces to restrain these futile voyages from Sri Lanka.

There was a series of advertisements aired on TV to make people aware of the risk and loss affiliated to these attempts. Christmas Island is an external Australian territory with a population of around 2,000 people, a majority being Malaysian Chinese. The Island was first sighted by Richard Rowe in 1615. It was named on Christmas Day in 1643, by Capt. William. During World War 11 the Island drew the attention of the Japanese. From the 1980s, Christmas Island has been a hot spot for Indonesian asylum seekers who also came by boat. The Island is famous for its resplendent biological diversity.

As Sri Lankans, we must stop and ponder, as to why these 7,000 men and women were willing to gamble their lives? What prevented them from living a productive and comfortable life in their own motherland? Why could they not find rewarding employment in their hometowns? If these questions are answered, not many Sri Lankans will desire to seek greener pastures, legally or illegally.

Susan Jones, Second Secretary of the Australian High Commission said, “The Australian Government is committed to protecting our borders, stamping out people smuggling, and preventing vulnerable people from risking their lives at sea. Any people smuggling boats that attempt to reach Australia will be intercepted and turned back. Australia works closely with the Sri Lankan Government to stop criminal people smuggling. Since 2013, every single Sri Lankan people smuggling boat that has attempted to come to Australia has failed.” 

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