Sri Lanka's navy accused of helping people smugglers

Sri Lanka's navy is alleged to be a major player in the island's people-smuggling operations, helping asylum seekers leave the country in boats bound for Australia.

At the same time as the navy receives equipment and training from Australia to combat people-smuggling operations, it has been accused by returned asylum seekers, Tamil politicians, community leaders and non-governmental organisations of allowing certain boats to pass, even escorting some out of Sri Lankan waters, while stopping others not party to its operations.

The navy denies the allegations.

One returned asylum seeker, Rajesh, said he was told part of the 1.2 million rupees ($A9000) 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 Tamil Tigers, was happy for Tamil men of fighting age to leave. ''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,'' he said.

Prominent Tamil National Alliance MP Suresh Premachandran said: ''I believe some navy personnel are involved in this smuggling.''

Fellow TNA MP and leading Sri Lankan lawyer, M. A. Sumanthiran, claimed the navy's involvement was common knowledge. ''About one boat in 10 they catch and bring back, and announce it to the country.''

Australia has known of the allegations for several months. The issue was first raised with Foreign Minister Bob Carr in December when he met Tamil representatives.

''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 Senator Carr said.

His office passed the allegations to 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 interdict people-smuggling boats.

This year, its naval officers will train in Australia in maritime air surveillance, and the two countries will hold joint intelligence training programs.

In 2012, the Sri Lankan navy arrested more than 3000 people trying to leave for Australia. Another 6428 made it across the Indian Ocean. It's unknown how many people were lost at sea. Sri Lankan navy spokesman Commander Kosala Warnakulasuriya said allegations of naval complicity were baseless. ''I categorically deny these allegations, no Sri Lankan naval personnel are involved in this illegal migration activity,'' he said.

He said claims of naval complicity were made to discredit Sri Lanka's government for political advantage. ''The Sri Lankan navy has stopped more boats than any country.''

Follow the National Times on Twitter

The story Sri Lanka's navy accused of helping people smugglers first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

Tablet - Narrow
Tablet - Wide