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Inside Sri Lanka’s people smuggling game

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Kudamaduwella, Sri Lanka: Kneeling on the floor of his palatial, gated home, Nishantha Fernando unfurls a roll of nautical charts. Running his finger across the map from Sri Lanka in the direction of Australia he lands upon Christmas Island, which he has circled in pen.

Fernando, 50, is a fisherman, chicken farmer and a loan shark in Kudamaduwella, a village on Sri Lanka’s coastal Catholic belt. But he’s also been an organiser of boats to Australia – a people smuggler.

Nishantha Fernando at his home in the Sri Lankan coastal village of Kudamaduwella.Credit:Pradeep Dambarage

“I have sent around 800 people from here to Australia,” he said, rising to his feet in his lounge room, a statue of Jesus, a stack of bibles and a widescreen television behind him.

“Even though it is illegal, it is not against God.”

It’s a shady business that has experienced a resurgence amid Sri Lanka’s crippling fuel and food crisis this year, with nearly 1000 people having set off since May in rickety trawlers to try and reach Australia illegally by sea.

Most have been rounded up and arrested before they have left Sri Lankan waters. But 183 have had to be returned to Colombo by Australian Border Force after six boats were intercepted by its patrols – the first, most notably, on May 21, the day of Australia’s federal election.

The kingpins who have arranged the journeys and profited from them have largely operated in the shadows, their activities concealed by sub-agents, skippers and crew members who do the dirty work for them.

In a rare interview with a people smuggler, though, Fernando openly admitted he had dispatched boats to Australia.

Fernando outlines the route towards Australia on a nautical chart.

Fernando outlines the route towards Australia on a nautical chart.Credit:Pradeep Dambarage

Approached by The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age at his home two hours’ drive north of Colombo, he said he had sent 12 vessels between 2010 and 2013, at the height of boat arrivals to Australia, all but one of which made it.

Then, in June, as Sri Lanka sank into economic despair, he arranged another boat.

“I didn’t think they would be turned back,” he said of this year’s burst of people leaving the island nation by sea, headed for Australia.

“We thought [Australia] would accept them. We thought they wouldn’t be deported because of the economic situation in the country.

“Our country needs dollars. The easiest way for us to find dollars was for us to send people by either flight or by boat. If each of those people send $100 back to Sri Lanka it’s a big amount of money.”

The Australian government has invested millions to assist Sri Lanka combat people smuggling with training and equipment since introducing its turn-backs policy in 2013, including giving the country two retired patrol ships as well as drones.

It also provided Sri Lanka with GPS trackers this year to help it detect a new wave of boats.

The Sri Lanka Navy has been able to stop some illegal departures – it has intercepted 18 boats this year, arresting 741 people at sea and 224 on land.

But Fernando’s case has raised questions about the appetite of police to go after those actually organising them and profiting from them – even one brazen enough to speak publicly about his exploits.

His latest venture was not successful. It was seized by the navy on June 7 before leaving Sri Lankan waters and the 76 people on board, including its skipper and crew, were turned over to police.

Yet Fernando, who was not on the boat, was not arrested and days later even had his 12-metre trawler returned to him.

Asked how he had managed to steer clear of prosecution, he said he had not put his name on the paperwork for any of his boats, or for that matter, anything he owned, and did not fear arrest.

“Why should I be scared?” Fernando said. “I didn’t go to jail because I didn’t need to go to jail.”

Fernando’s chicken farm, near his home in Kudamaduwella.

Fernando’s chicken farm, near his home in Kudamaduwella.Credit:Pradeep Dambarage

Two Sri Lankan government officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity because they were not permitted to talk publicly, confirmed Fernando had been known for organising boats and referred to him as “Bottu Nishantha”, such was his reputation.

Top smugglers can receive lengthy prison sentences, but the government officials said they were often clever in covering themselves legally.

“If they are caught in the initial stages they cannot do anything [to avoid prosecution],” one of the officials said. “Once they organise something and collect the money, they are OK.”

The government sources also said the majority of boats organised this year were “scams”, in which smugglers tipped off the authorities themselves once the vessel was at sea, receiving payment or protection or both.

It is a development that renews long-held beliefs about connections between smugglers and members of the security forces in Sri Lanka.

”There is a huge [human smuggling] industry here and it cannot possibly function without the collusion of various state entities,” said human rights lawyer Ambika Satkunanathan, a former commissioner of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka.

Fernando poses for a photo outside his house, which has a large mural of a ship next to the front door.

Fernando poses for a photo outside his house, which has a large mural of a ship next to the front door.Credit:Pradeep Dambarage

“It’s not just about people trafficking, it’s also about drug trafficking.

“[The police force] is politicised, it does not adhere to the rule of law, and it does not safeguard the rule of law. Often it is the one that is breaking the law.”

Satkunanathan said Fernando’s dodging of scrutiny brought into serious question the competence and will of the police in stopping smugglers, raising doubts “whether they spend any time and energy looking for these people”.

“Does it mean when they interrogate [passengers] they are not providing the information? If they are providing the information, how is it that the smugglers are not being arrested and even speak to reporters and proudly speak of what they’ve done.”

Sri Lanka police spokesman Senior Superintendent Nihal Thalduwa said the police’s human smuggling investigation division was not aware of Fernando.

“They don’t have any idea about this person,” he said. “The incident happened, but we can’t find that name in the area.”

Asked about claims of links between police and smugglers, he replied: “Maybe there are some police officers behind the scene but, so far, we didn’t get any information. So far, we haven’t found any information connecting [the boat] to police.”

Boats were generally not released after being captured in smuggling attempts, according to the police spokesman.

Sri Lanka Navy spokesman Captain Indika De Silva said he could not comment on the case because it was handled by police, but on suggestions of boat organisers tipping off the authorities themselves, he replied that “no such incidents have been reported when interrogated by [the navy]“.

The navy has previously denied allegations of links between government personnel and human traffickers, even when several naval officers were arrested in 2013 for alleged involvement in a major people smuggling operation.

’I don’t think he’ll return the money’

It was in April that Fernando began to put the word around in Kudamaduwella about his boat to Australia.

He was charging between 350,000 and 700,000 Sri Lankan rupees ($3000) for a place, and he was not short on takers. As Sri Lanka’s financial meltdown deepened, dozens of villagers and others from as far afield as Trincomalee, on the north-east coast, sold their belongings to buy places on the vessel from him.

Statues of Jesus are a regular sight on the Catholic coastal belt.

Statues of Jesus are a regular sight on the Catholic coastal belt.Credit:Pradeep Dambarage

“I heard from friends that a boat was going out,” said 32-year-old Suresh Fernando, one of 40 people from the village to secure a spot on the boat. He is no relation to its owner.

“He wouldn’t give us precise details but he said this is how much it would cost and ‘we’ll let you know’.”

He pawned his family’s jewellery, quit his job and took out high-interest loans to stump up for a ticket, so desperate was he to find a way to support his then heavily pregnant wife and soon-to-be-born child.

“The situation was so bad with the fuel crisis and the economy and the message we got [was] that Australia was accepting people,” he said. “We also got information from friends that two boats to Australia had gone before ours and they had got off on Christmas Island and been taken to a rehabilitation centre.”

For weeks the journey was simultaneously top secret and the talk of the town, spoken about only within the separate groups of friends and families in the know, and when Fernando decided the boat was finally ready to go in the first week of June, most of its passengers were given only a few hours’ notice.

With most of their fathers out at sea fishing, it was left to their mothers to take them to the pick-up point via motorcycle.

Arriving under cover of night at a newly built harbour at Wennappuwa, a 45-minute drive south, they were then ferried on a fleet of speed boats through choppy water towards the main vessel at sea, armed with GPS devices to locate it.

While two of the small boats were unable to find it and returned to shore, most of the 76 people who did make it aboard huddled into the trawler’s emptied fish and ice compartment, among them five women and seven children. Also on the boat was Fernando’s 20-year-old son.

With the skipper and six crew members working the deck, they avoided detection through the night and the next morning.

That afternoon, however, a navy ship appeared from over the horizon and their short-lived journey was over.

Taken to Colombo Harbour and arrested, those who were on board were left facing hefty fines for immigration offences on top of sums that have already left many broke or in debt.

Passengers were convinced not to give Fernando’s name up to police, according to two people on board, who said they had been warned they would not be refunded if they did.

But in the three months that followed they were unable to retrieve their money anyway despite their pleas to the boat owner.

As a result, there has been suspicion in Kudamaduwella that villagers were cheated – and that Fernando deployed a “confidence trick” by telling them his son would be on board.

A woman sells fish by the side of the road on Sri Lanka’s central west coast.

A woman sells fish by the side of the road on Sri Lanka’s central west coast.Credit:Pradeep Dambarage

“The way it was told to us, it seemed as if Australia would send a ship out to take us into the country,” said another person who bought a ticket but spoke on the condition his name was not published, worried he would not get his money back if it was.

“A lot of people are saying he used his son as bait and then took us out and gave the tip to the authorities.

“How did he get his boat freed before our cases [in court] are even finished?“

Fernando said he had heard the rumours but rejected them, denying he phoned in a tip after his boat set off on June 6.

He admitted he made a tidy profit – in the tens of millions of rupees – with each of the boats he sent previously but insisted he did not set out to fleece villagers when he organised another one this year.

Instead, he said he was covering the fees for lawyers to represent those arrested on his boat and he would pay for their fines.

He claimed he was also selling the trawler, which he said he bought for 10 million rupees, and would divide up the proceeds and distribute them.

“I have enough money,” he said.

Not everyone, however, is convinced.

Suresh Fernando, who was on one of the speed boats that had to turn back, feared he would not see his cash again.

“Whether the boat got [to Australia] or not, it’s no loss to him,” he said.

“If it went, he doesn’t have to repay any money. He gave out the ticket and they got caught. I don’t think he’ll return the money.”

‘It’s people like us who stop boats’

Angry at the new surge of people smuggling attempts, a group of locals near Fernando’s village have been taking matters into their own hands.

In Thoduwawa, a short drive north of Kudamuduwella, fishing society figures have been rallying against the trade, keeping an ear to the ground and blowing the whistle to authorities when they hear of a boat journey being planned.

Viyani Samson, centre in yellow shirt, and his friends are fighting against people smuggling in the area.

Viyani Samson, centre in yellow shirt, and his friends are fighting against people smuggling in the area.Credit:Pradeep Dambarage

The navy says it relies mostly on patrols and radar to stop boats, rather than tip-offs, but Viyani Samson, a former local politician who fronts the group, has a different view.

“It’s not the government – it’s people like us who stop boats with tips,” he said.

“There is a lot of smuggling going on around here. Every police station in Sri Lanka talks about Thoduwawa because there are seamen in this area that have the skills to take a boat that far.”

A neighbourhood watch of sorts, the anti-smuggling campaigners in Thoduwawa include members of the local Civil Defence Committee, one of 14,000 established to protect their villages during the 26-year civil war between Sri Lankan forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, which ended in 2009.

They highlight the inherent dangers of human smuggling – 964 people were estimated to have died while trying to reach Australia by boat between 2001 and 2012 – but also the financial implications for those who sell everything they own for the dream of a new life abroad.

They said they had seen as many as 500 people in their area lose everything to a failed boat escape.

“We are opposed to trafficking to Australia because it’s a crime and only a few people are earning from it,” says Loyal Peiris, another member of the group.

“If our people are able to go to Australia and settle down and earn a little money we are not against that, we are not jealous about it, we are happy. But that’s not what happens. What happens is that people are made destitute. They fall from the frying pan into the fire.”

For their troubles, the men in Thoduwawa have faced threats which have made them deeply wary of police.

They have picked up intelligence about boats in the back channels on which smugglers advertise their business – vast networks forged over glasses of arrack during seasonal fishing trips.

Even when they have sent tips to officers they trust, however, they said they had often been betrayed, with their identities passed onto to those they have informed against.

“They haven’t held a pistol to our head yet but they’ve sent messages … [via] word of mouth … saying they’ll come and assault us,” Peiris said.

Sri Lankan men are led off the Australian Border Force ship Ocean Shield in Colombo in August.

Sri Lankan men are led off the Australian Border Force ship Ocean Shield in Colombo in August.Credit:Sri Lanka Navy

On the frontline of the battle against people smuggling, misinformation has also been an enemy.

The Australian government has run television advertisements in Sri Lanka warning it does not accept boat arrivals and even conducted a short film competition in which entrants were encouraged to have an anti-smuggling theme.

More recently, Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil flew to Sri Lanka in June to reaffirm that “Australia’s border protection policies have not changed” since Labor assumed power in May.

Then, in August, Australian Border Force took the unprecedented step of using its largest patrol ship, the 110-metre Ocean Shield, to repatriate 46 men it had picked up on a boat near Christmas Island, sending a deliberate message by docking in Colombo Harbour rather than returning them by air.

The awareness, though, has been slow to gain traction. There are no billboards or posters in fishing communities along Sri Lanka’s central-west coast about the perils of sea travel or Australia’s unwillingness to take in people who arrive in that fashion.

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Meanwhile, even within Samson’s group of amateur crime fighters, there has been talk of three boats that set off this year that have not been heard from and are assumed, as a result, to have reached Australia.

Such stories have bolstered the business model of smugglers, contributing to a false narrative that Australia will take in people who attempt to arrive by sea.

Now, in dry, windswept Kudamaduwella, at least, the message appears to be getting through, but it’s been a costly lesson.

If Samson and his friends have anything to do with it, it is a price that no more of their neighbours will have to pay.

“If you’re my friend and you are about to lose everything, should I let that happen?” Samson said. “This is our village.”

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