Social Issues

People smuggling increases amid crisis in Sri Lanka

By Aanya Wipulasena

Colombo, Feb 21 (EFE) .- In a fishing village in Sri Lanka, Nalaka is the go to person for information related to illegally crossing the high seas, a journey in which precarious boats are loaded with people desperate to leave the paradisiacal island, facing its worst economic crisis in history.

Nalaka, name changed to protect his identity, lives in a small fishing village in northwestern Sri Lanka, from where boats carrying illegal immigrants are known to leave.

He is known for having successfully returned alive, several years ago, from one of these journeys to Australia on a boat with about 30 other people.

Today people go to him for necessary information on staying alive on the high seas in such circumstances.

“It is a dreadful journey. Anything can happen in the sea. I don’t encourage anyone to go,” Nalaka told EFE.

According to the Sri Lankan Navy (SLN), 1,385 people were detained while attempting to cross the Indian Ocean last year, ten times more since 2021, when only 103 were caught.

According to official figures, most of those who tried to cross the waters of the Indian Ocean (1,189, according to the SLN) were heading to Australia despite the strict security measures deployed there and the thousands of kilometers that separate the two islands.

An officer of the Australian Border Force (ABF), on condition of anonymity, told EFE the country’s borders are patrolled around the clock, and “anyone who attempts an illegal boat journey to Australia will be caught and returned to Sri Lanka where they may face criminal charges and be left with nothing.”

The island nation is going through the worst economic crisis since its independence from the British Empire in 1948.

With the drying up of international reserves, the country faces a shortage of basic needs and fuel, generating a desperate situation for the country.

Heavily in debt and waiting for a rescue program from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) – still to be approved and which requires intense adjustments in the country’s fiscal activity -, Sri Lankans have trouble visualizing better times.

An estimated 311,000 Sri Lankans migrated to work outside the country in 2022, according to statistics from the Ministry of Labour and Foreign Employment.

Others, who find it difficult to get through legal channels, resort to people smugglers, known as “boat operators.”

“One must pay around one million rupees (a little over $2,700) to the boat operator” for organizing the trip, and once inside the boat, the fate of the traveler is at the mercy of the capricious ocean, Nalaka explained.

Traffickers can make up to around 30 million Sri Lankan rupees (nearly $82,000) for a boat full of illegal immigrants.

However, it is not so simple to on one of these boats, explained Nalaka, as smugglers sometimes disappear with the money, which is often gotten by selling land and jewelry to lenders.

Sri Lankan authorities have deployed intelligence officers on the ground to constantly monitor areas where people smuggling is known to occur, such as Chilaw in the North Western Province, Navy spokesperson Capt. Gayan Wickramasuriya told EFE.

For human rights activist Ruki Fernando, the Sri Lankan authorities need to do more than arrest people to stop illegal immigration.

“People would not leave if there was security. It is because of insecurity, such as economic insecurity, hunger, and starvation that cause serious threats to life, or they can’t live in dignity that they leave,” Fernando told EFE.

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