Sri Lankan Human Smuggling Worries Canada and Thailand
Almost 30 of the 50-odd Sri Lankan Tamils arrested by Thai police in Songkhla, the port town in the Gulf of Thailand, have been brought to Bangkok and are in the Immigration Detention Centre, awaiting deportation.
They had been arrested for violating Thai immigration laws such as overstaying their visas or for illegal entry.
Intelligence reports had suggested that they were congregating in Songkhla prior to boarding a ship for illicit entry to Canada.
Stung by the arrival of hundreds of Sri Lankan Tamil boat-people seeking refugee status, Canada and Thailand have agreed to co-operate to stem the tide and clamp down on human smugglers.
Canada’s Special Advisor on Human Smuggling and Illegal Migration, Ward Elcock, had talks early this month with Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya on how best to work together on the twin problems of people smuggling and human trafficking on which they share a common interest.
While Canada has been ‘invaded’ by some 550 Sri Lankan Tamil illicit migrants arriving in two ships in the past one year, Thailand has become both a transit and destination country.
The last boat “MV Sun Sea” carrying 492 Sri Lankans had left from Songkhla last June and fears of more Tamils being transported to the area led to Thai police raids that netted 114 of them.
Some 60-odd had been released as their visas were still valid for stay in Thailand though the suspicions were that they too had travelled to Songkhla to awaiting a vessel that would take them to Canada.
This was the second time in one month Thai police cracked down on Sri Lankans Tamils seeking to enter a third country as refugees, arresting in all 250 of them.
The police raids in Bangkok and Songkhla in the Gulf of Thailand followed earlier discussions with Australia and now Canada, both targeted by boatloads of asylum seekers, and intelligence that another illicit-run to Canada was imminent.
With human smuggling turning into a political hot potato, Ottawa has drafted new laws making it more difficult for asylum seekers to sink permanent roots in Canada, bring their families and imposing tough penalties on smugglers
Canada is are tightening up after talks with Australia, another favoured destination for asylum seekers which also hardened itsr procedures after more than 100 boat loads of would-be refugees tried to sneak in during the last couple of years.
After this month’s police raid in Songkhla Canada’s Immigration Minister Jason Kenney said that the Tamils were trying to sneak into Canada. Some had valid Thai tourist visas but there presence in Songkhla, an area hardly visited by Sri Lankan tourists, was a sign of their real intent.
Sri Lankans generally visit Thailand on two-month tourist visas obtained in Colombo. Rounding up of so many Sri Lankan Tamils in Songkhla inevitably meant they were there to be ferried to a ship preparing to head for Canada as most boats trying to breach Australia’s ‘cordon sanitaire’ start from or around Indonesia.
Several factors must worry Canada, home to some 200,000 Sri Lankan Tamils, the largest concentration outside Sri Lanka. While many found refuge after the anti-Tamil riots of July 1983 and the war that followed, the attempt to sneak into Canada large numbers of Sri Lankan Tamils, bypassing existing asylum procedures, is now turning into a lucrative business for human smugglers.
While there is an ongoing debate whether ‘crash landing’ in Canada does an injustice to those seeking migrant status by regular means, a major concern for Canada now is whether former combatants of the defeated Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the Sri Lankan terrorist group banned in Canada, and economic migrants are trying to creep in as genuine migrants.
Canada reiterates that they will accept genuine refugees and many who have qualified have settled in Canada and other western countries. Some had themselves been the victims of the Tigers and fled the country fearing LTTE retribution against them or their families.
Canada also needs to identify those behind this well orchestrated criminal operation, smashing it at source and ensuring that former LTTE terrorists are not admitted.
The first smuggling ship “Ocean Lady” that reached Canada in August 2009 was skippered by an LTTE activist Capt Kamalraj while the “Sun Sea” was skippered by Captain Vinod.
Both ran guns and other weaponry for the LTTE from North Korea according to the Singapore-based terrorism expert Rohan Gunaratne.
Running would-be migrants and drugs is one means of replenishing the coffers of the LTTE which was military smashed at home by the Sri Lankan forces, but a hardcore of Tamils abroad needs to keep the dream of an independent Tamil state alive and lobby internationally.
Canada’s multiple problems are compounded by the knowledge that several Tamils who have obtained temporary or permanent migrant status have returned to Sri Lanka for visits undermining their previous claims of a genuine fear of persecution and threat to life if returned to Sri Lanka.
Moreover the UNHCR reported last July an improved human rights and security situation in Sri Lanka. Later the UNHCR’s deputy in Sri Lanka Jennifer Pagonis said more refugees were returning and she expects the trend to continue.
Strict surveillance by the Sri Lankan navy has stopped the departure of boats that once ferried human cargo to Australia. Following intense naval patrolling the people smuggling operations have shifted to Southeast Asia, mainly Thailand.
This has implications for Thailand too. Songkhla where the Sri Lankan Tamils live awaiting a smuggler’s ship, is close enough to the Pattani -Yala region from which Thailand’s Malay Muslim insurgents are continuing attacks against security forces and civilians.
Southern Thailand has been an old stomping ground of LTTE gun-runners and other Tiger activists. Given the transnational character of modern terrorism some tie up under which LTTE expertise in guerrilla warfare and improvised ordnance is bartered for a temporary or a permanent safe haven could become an explosive mix.
So it would be in Thailand’s interest too to devise ways to put an end to the menace of human smuggling.
- Asian Tribune -