Lankan refugee trafficking exposes chinks in security

human traffickingThe recent arrest of two boat owners from Puducherry for trafficking Sri Lankan refugees to Australia through the sea route has exposed big gaps in coastal security, according to intelligence agencies.The Puducherry police arrested the two men based on a tip-off by the Australian government after interviewing the refugees. That none of the intelligence and law enforcement agencies had specific information on the boat owners and the journey has left intelligence officials worried, especially in a situation where ISI-trained terrorists in Sri Lanka have been reportedly trying to infiltrate through the Tamil Nadu coast. The agencies’ ignorance continued through early July – after the boat was apprehended by the Australian coast guard on June 30.

Among the 157 asylum seekers, some 40 were inmates of refugee camps in the state. Indian investigative agencies now know the identities of 40 others many of whom came from Sri Lanka recently, but they are clueless about the rest. “According to the information from the Australian authorities there are a few Sinhalese families as well. Some 50 of them are Sri Lankan Tamils who arrived recently in India on visa and stayed in and around the refugee camps before taking the boat,” an official said.

An inmate of Keezhputhupattu refugee camp said the boat left from Anichakuppam, about 5km from the camp. “The people were asked to board the boat in small groups. The agents then loaded rice and other groceries. The boat left from the fishing hamlet at around 7.30pm on June 13,” he said.

According to officials, six of those on the boat were from two families in Keezhputhupattu. A family of six, including a two year-old-girl, staying outside the camp were part of the group too. Another 14 refugees from Gummudipoondi camp in Tiruvallur and eight from Aliyar camp near Coimbatore also took the journey on June 13.

The agents charged between 1.25 lakh and 1.5 lakh per head for the trip but gave discounts to women and children. “The traffickers wanted to take more women and children as this would influence Australian authorities to consider their case sympathetically. But the trauma that the children must have experienced can’t be imagined. The boat reached the Australian border in 16 days,” an official in Puducherry said.

The traffickers procured a satellite phone for the boatman. “When the boat was in trouble, the people on board called a news agency and the father of the two-year-old who was in France using a satellite phone,” the official said.

In recent years, there have been several instances of refugees attempting risky journeys to Australia, exposing the porous nature of India’s coastline. “Trafficking exposes the failure of Q branch, Special branch CID, state rehabilitation officials, coast guard, coastal security and marine security,” a senior official in the home department said.

Security analysts point out that in the 26/11 Mumbai attack, Pakistan terrorists took the sea route to reach Mumbai. Analysts said coastal security and police network should be tightened. R Hariharan, a retired military intelligence specialist on South Asia, told TOI, “Coastal security is very important especially when ISI trained terrorists are targeting south India. The security agencies and other intelligence agencies should involve people especially fishermen while gathering intelligence.”

The group of 157 has been detained at sea since the boat was intercepted 27km from Christmas Island. They are now being transferred to Cocos Islands, and would then be flown to Curtin detention centre in remote Western Australia, media reports said. (Times of India)


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