Some members of the Sri Lankan navy are accused of being among the main players in the island’s people-smuggling operations, helping asylum seekers leave the country in boats bound for Australia.
The navy – a recipient of equipment and training from Australia to combat people-smuggling operations – is accused by returned asylum seekers, Tamil politicians, community leaders and NGOs of allowing certain refugee boats to pass.
They allege that some boats are even escorted out of Sri Lankan waters, while others not party to its operations are stopped.
The Sri Lankan Navy has denied the claims.
One returned asylum seeker, Rajesh*, said he was told part of the 1.2 million rupees ($9000) he paid for passage to Australia would be used to pay off ”authority people, the navy and police”. He said the government, still fearful of a resurgence of the terrorist Tamil Tigers, was happy for Tamil men of fighting age to leave Sri Lanka. ”When I left, about 2800 people had been caught by the navy, but we went out the same way. I am sure there must have been involvement by the navy to let us go.”
Another asylum seeker, Kannan, said the first time he fled to Australia, his boat was stopped by a naval patrol boat and the passengers counted.
”The skipper of the boat was on the phone talking to the navy in Sinhala language, trying to negotiate to let us go. He was trying to pay some money so that the navy would let us leave Sri Lankan waters.” After two hours, talks collapsed, the boat was taken in by the navy and the asylum seekers arrested.
”But when I went the second time after several months, the captain this time said he had paid the money to the authorities, and we would be safe. We were not stopped. We went straight out late at night.”
Australia has known of the allegations for several months. The issue was first raised directly with Foreign Minister Bob Carr in December when he met representatives of the Tamil community.
”We are aware of these claims, there has also been reporting in Sri Lanka of naval personnel being arrested for being involved,” a spokesman for Mr Carr said.
Mr Carr’s office passed the allegations to the Minister for Home Affairs Jason Clare for further investigation. ”There is currently no specific evidence that we are aware of to support these claims,” a spokeswoman said.
In a deal announced in December, Australia will give the Sri Lankan Navy surveillance and search-and-rescue equipment to help it interdict people smuggling boats.
This year, Sri Lankan naval officers will train in Australia in maritime air surveillance, and the two countries will hold joint intelligence training programs.
Last year, the Sri Lankan Navy arrested more than 3000 people trying to leave for Australia, 6428 made it across the Indian Ocean. It is unknown how many people were lost at sea.
Sri Lankan Navy spokesman Commander Kosala Warnakulasuriya said allegations of naval complicity were baseless. They were being made to discredit Sri Lanka’s government.
”There is no truth to them. No one has ever presented any proof that the navy, or any government personnel is involved. The Sri Lankan Navy stopped more than 3000 people from leaving Sri Lankan waters last year. This proves we are making the maximum effort to stop people leaving the country. I categorically deny these allegations, no Sri Lankan naval personnel are involved in this illegal migration activity.”
A prominent Tamil National Alliance parliamentarian, Suresh Premachandran, said: ”I believe some navy personnel are involved in this smuggling.” A fellow TNA parliamentarian and leading Sri Lankan lawyer, MA Sumanthiran, said the navy’s involvement was common knowledge.
”There is no doubt there is a level of naval complicity in the people smuggling. It is quite clear that some people are given the chance to go through, and we have even heard of stories where the navy has escorted boats out of Sri Lanka’s territorial waters. About one boat in 10 they catch and bring back, and announce it to the country.”
The Sri Lankan Navy’s omnipresence around the island made leaving without its knowledge almost impossible, the co-ordinator of Civil Society, Batticaloa, S. Mamangarajah said. Batticaloa, on the east coast, is a main point of departure for asylum seekers.
”This is known all over the district, when these people are trying to go to Australia, the navy is there. There are four big naval camps in the east of Sri Lanka now, and the whole coastline is entirely occupied by the navy.”
*The names of asylum seekers have been changed. (Courtesy the Sydney Morning Herald)