A senior Sri Lankan government official is suspected by Australian authorities of being personally “complicit” in the people-smuggling trade, directly undermining Canberra’s attempts to stop the surge in asylum-seeker boats.
The Australian can reveal that Australia’s intelligence agencies have identified the official, who has a high profile and is known to be close to President Mahinda Rajapaksa. The agencies believe he is responsible for authorising numerous boats in the past 10 months, fuelling the surge of asylum-seekers from Sri Lanka that has threatened to overwhelm Australia’s detention system.
The intelligence assessments about the figure, whom The Australian has chosen not to identify, are widely known at senior levels of the Gillard government.
It is understood options were canvassed as to how to handle the allegations before Foreign Minister Bob Carr’s visit to Sri Lanka in December. Senator Carr never raised the matter with the Sri Lankan government, and Canberra has been pleased with the sharp reduction in boats from the nation in recent weeks.
The allegations against the official drew a flat denial from the Sri Lankan government, with Colombo’s senior envoy to Australia, Bandula Jayasekara, describing them yesterday as “unbelievable, ridiculous, and mischievous”.
While official corruption is a common feature of the people-smuggling industry across the world, the involvement of such a senior member of the government would appear to be unprecedented. The assessment inside the Australian government is that the official is “complicit” in people-smuggling, posing a serious obstacle to Australia’s attempts to stop the flow of boats from Sri Lanka.
Australia’s intelligence agencies believe it would be impossible for so many asylum-seeker boats to leave the island’s shores without the individual’s direct involvement.
However, one senior government source said he had not seen a “smoking gun” that proved it.
Speaking on behalf of the government, a spokesman for Immigration Minister Chris Bowen said the government was working closely with the Sri Lankans to break the smuggling syndicates, but declined to address the allegations against the official directly.
“As you know, we do not publicly discuss people-smuggling or national security intelligence,” the spokesman said.
Mr Jayasekara described the allegations as a “smear campaign against the (official)”.
“The government of Sri Lanka and the Sri Lankan defence authorities, incurring great expense, have worked overtime to prevent people-smugglers,” Mr Jayasekara said.
“I deplore in the strongest terms your attempt to tarnish the image of Sri Lanka and the good name of the (official) by reports which I would not hesitate to call malicious. I would also like to question if there is a hidden agenda or two-legged tiger paws behind your attempt to discredit the (official).”
However, several Australian officials spoken to by The Australian said there was concern within government that the Sri Lankan government’s near-total control over the island’s maritime domain meant that the official had the power to “turn on the tap” and unleash untold asylum boats.
That presents a diplomatic dilemma for Australia, which must steer a middle course between lobbying Sri Lanka to improve its tainted human rights record while at the same time trying to avoid offending the Sri Lankan government.
According to Customs and Border Protection, a total of 122 asylum boats left Sri Lanka for Australia last year, with the first arriving in February.
The surge provoked confusion and alarm within the government, which had been confident it had broken the back of the Sri Lankan smuggling trade, which flourished briefly in the aftermath of Sri Lanka’s 2009 civil war.
But since Senator Carr’s visit to Sri Lanka, government sources have expressed optimism about the Sri Lankan problem, as the flow of boats has stopped.
Australian officials credit the reduction in arrivals to several factors, including bad weather and the success of the Gillard government’s policy of “screening out” and promptly returning boatpeople who do not raise refugee claims. (The Australian)