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An interview with a ‘people smuggler’

October 23, 2009

The Australian : Among the smugglers
Amanda Hodge | October 21, 2009

THE boat owners of Negombo have a message for the Rudd government: give us a year and a stack of cash and we can end the wave of asylum-seekers washing up on your shores.

“Without our knowledge no one can get into the sea,” Justin Waranakulasuriya boasts to The Australian as we sit in the front yard of his home. Dripping in gold and wearing a traditional lungi, the secretary of the Sea Street Kudapadu Conciliated Fisheries Society appears to carry weight in this fishing and tourist village on Sri Lanka’s westcoast.

As we talk, some similarly bejewelled male visitors pay their respects, and a party of men sits inside eating fried fish and drinking Johnnie Walker Black Label.

Justin says he has already met Australian officials who have sought the society’s help in cracking down on the thriving people- smuggling trade operating along his patch. His society has been promised dozens of lifejackets, fishing nets and at least 200 chairs in return for spruiking the perils of the Indian Ocean crossing.

The Rudd government is also preparing to offer micro loans and community grants for job creation programs to improve life for poor Sri Lankans at home to reduce the likelihood they will attempt to seek a better life in Australia. But the society wants more.

“They (Australian government) want to organise street drama to show how dangerous it is,” he says, referring to the Australian Customs-funded advertising campaign being rolled out along the west coast to dissuade would-be asylum-seekers.

“There is a very good relationship between us and the (Australian) officials.

“You can take my word: if the Australian government can assist us, help us to improve the economy, I give a guarantee not a single person will try to reach your country by boat from Negombo.” More

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  1. Australians for Tamil Justice permalink*
    October 23, 2009 1:35 am

    The Australian : Among the smugglers
    Amanda Hodge | October 21, 2009

    THE boat owners of Negombo have a message for the Rudd government: give us a year and a stack of cash and we can end the wave of asylum-seekers washing up on your shores.

    “Without our knowledge no one can get into the sea,” Justin Waranakulasuriya boasts to The Australian as we sit in the front yard of his home. Dripping in gold and wearing a traditional lungi, the secretary of the Sea Street Kudapadu Conciliated Fisheries Society appears to carry weight in this fishing and tourist village on Sri Lanka’s westcoast.

    As we talk, some similarly bejewelled male visitors pay their respects, and a party of men sits inside eating fried fish and drinking Johnnie Walker Black Label.

    Justin says he has already met Australian officials who have sought the society’s help in cracking down on the thriving people- smuggling trade operating along his patch. His society has been promised dozens of lifejackets, fishing nets and at least 200 chairs in return for spruiking the perils of the Indian Ocean crossing.

    The Rudd government is also preparing to offer micro loans and community grants for job creation programs to improve life for poor Sri Lankans at home to reduce the likelihood they will attempt to seek a better life in Australia. But the society wants more.

    “They (Australian government) want to organise street drama to show how dangerous it is,” he says, referring to the Australian Customs-funded advertising campaign being rolled out along the west coast to dissuade would-be asylum-seekers.

    “There is a very good relationship between us and the (Australian) officials.

    “You can take my word: if the Australian government can assist us, help us to improve the economy, I give a guarantee not a single person will try to reach your country by boat from Negombo.”

    The intriguing offer could well be more than an idle boast. Twenty-two fishing societies, essentially cartels of boat owners, control the industry along the length of Sri Lanka’s west coast and meet harbour authorities weekly to discuss market variations and local issues. They appear to be well-organised and well-connected.

    “It’s happening,” Justin says of the people-smuggling trade. “I totally admit that it’s happening with the consent of the harbour men.

    “But if anyone comes to us and says to us, ‘We are doing this (people-smuggling) because we can’t make a living’, we can help by advising them of the risks and helping them to buy a boat or fishing gear. It all comes down to money.”

    Populated mostly by Catholic Sinhalese fishermen and their families, the west coast has a rich history of Portuguese and Dutch settlement. A good proportion of the adult population speaks Tamil with greater fluency than Sinhalese, a product of their education in Tamil and Catholic schools.

    Although it is Sri Lanka’s Tamil population that has suffered the greatest discrimination at the hands of chauvinist Sinhalese-dominated governments in recent decades, most Sinhalese Christians who attempt the boat trip to Australia also claim political persecution.

    Waranakulasuriya Venses Fernando was among the first Sri Lankans, mostly Sinhalese Christians, to be sent home by the Rudd government this month after being refused asylum. The 39-year-old fisherman and father of three says he fled the country by boat in March, just weeks before provincial elections, after his campaigning for an opposition party caught the attention of local thugs who threatened to kill him.

    But he tells The Australian he voluntarily returned from Christmas Island a week ago after authorities told him that as a Sinhalese man he had less than a 1 per cent chance of staying in Australia.

    “The Australian government thinks only Tamils have problems in this country, but we are not an original Sinhalese community,” he says. “We are discriminated against by other Sinhalese because we don’t speak a proper Sinhala language. We’re very fluent in Tamil so they think we’re also Tamil and that we helped the Tamil Tigers smuggle arms and cadres through Negombo.”

    Justin doesn’t buy it. “It’s a big lie. It’s a good reason to give to the authorities, but what has politics got to do with them? They’re fishermen,” he says.

    He believes migration from the west coast is being driven by economics. The area is dogged by high unemployment and, like many port areas, is a hub for drug traffickers. During the 26-year civil war with the Tamil Tigers, it was also used by arms smugglers.

    Sri Lankan people-smugglers appear to have taken advantage of the shipping routes forged by drug traffickers into Europe in the 1980s after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Islamic revolution in Iran and the Iran-Iraq war forced them to look for alternatives. But Justin says many people have since realised Australia is a better destination than the previously popular destination of Italy. “It’s underpopulated so they think they have a better chance of finding jobs there.”

    He acknowledges drug smuggling is a problem in the region but says unemployment is the key issue.

    High school graduate sons of local fishermen don’t want to follow their fathers into the fishing trade and see people-smuggling, or the passage to Australia, as a quick way to make money.

    “There are people in Negombo who all of a sudden buy a boat, pay $US20,000-$US25,000 ($21,500 to $27,000) to an owner, and then approach individuals within the fishing society and offer as much as $US500 for every person they recruit,” he says.

    “The passenger pays $US4000 for the trip. The agent takes his share and gives something to those who have helped along the way to introduce people. People have made their fortunes by recruiting for these journeys.”

    Justin admits he too has recruited for the boats, but later retracts that and says only that he knows of others who have done so.

    “There are many people who are willing to go, both Tamils and Sinhalese, from all over the country,” he says. “Many Pakistanis are also going.”

    Sri Lanka is not just an exporter of asylum-seekers. Thousands of Pakistanis – Christians, Shi’ites and adherents of the Ahmadiyya Islamic sect considered blasphemous by many Muslims – have sought safe haven there in recent years from alleged religious persecution at home.

    Shahid is an Ahmadiyya who fled the Pakistani city of Lahore for Sri Lanka more than four years ago. One of his sisters has since migrated to Australia and a brother to Canada, both via Sri Lanka.

    But he has twice been denied refugee status by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and leads an uncertain existence with the rest of his extended family in a small village near Negombo.

    With his latest six-month tourist visa due to expire this week, he faces little choice but to return to Pakistan or find another country that will take him.

    The UNHCR has recognised only 50 cases of genuine Pakistani refugees in Sri Lanka this year and has another 170 cases pending. But Shahid says there are “many, many Pakistanis” in the Negombo area alone and many of them are looking to migrate elsewhere by any means possible.

    “Sri Lanka is easy because you don’t need visas,” he says. “Going straight away, (Pakistani refugees) can’t go to Australia; they have to come here first.”

    Shahid has been offered places on boats numerous times by Sri Lankan friends who tout for passengers around Negombo’s local snooker club but feels it is too dangerous.

    Not everyone is so easily dissuaded, however, as the stand-off this week between Indonesian authorities and 260 Sri Lankan asylum-seekers caught trying to reach Australia will attest.

    Many on board that boat are believed to be Tamils who escaped the northern internment camps where about 280,000 civilians are being held behind barbed wire nearly five months after the government crushed the separatist Tamil Tigers.

    Thousands of Tamils have already bribed their way out of the camps with the help of relatives living abroad. Many head straight to Colombo airport and to the nearest countries that don’t require entry visas, which usually means Indonesia or Malaysia.

    Balan is one such man. With the help of relatives based in Canada, Australia and Sri Lanka, he paid 500,000 rupees to a Muslim, Tamil-speaking interpreter working at the Manik Farm camp in the northern Sri Lankan town of Vavuniya.

    His sister Praveena (not her real name), who helped arrange the escape, says the money went mostly to camp guards and paramilitary men allowed unlimited access to the camps.

    The former bank manager, his wife and two daughters took a train to Colombo and hid out with his sisters for several weeks before flying out to the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

    Speaking by phone from Tamil Nadu through an interpreter, Balan says he was offered a place for himself and his family on a boat out of the north in the last bloody weeks of Sri Lanka’s civil war when more than 200,000 civilians were caught between the two warring sides.

    Close to 200 people eventually took that boat out of Sri Lanka. A vessel with the same number arrived in Australia a month later and The Australian understands many of those on board were granted asylum.

    But elderly relatives forbade Balan from going, fearing for the lives of his daughters, aged nine and 11, and out of concern for their own safety back in the conflict zone.

    India has since granted the family refugee status, along with thousands of others, but without jobs there is little hope and he is looking farther afield.

    Balan says he regrets not taking the boat places offered “because we have suffered so much since then”. His children missed a year of school and the family is haunted by images of dead bodies in the streets.

    “He had a nice house, a good job, but he has lost everything,” Praveena says. “There are a lot of people like him in India now. People are just trying to go to any country that will take them.”

    Balan has heard that boats are leaving from southern India ultimately destined for Australia and says if he gets another opportunity, he won’t squander it.

    “There’s no chance to go legally so I’m willing to go illegally,” he says.

    Amanda Hodge is The Australian’s South Asia correspondent.

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