Refugee boat surge to Australia linked to profiteering by Rajapakse ally
Australia’s Intelligence services linked a senior Sri Lankan government official who is close to Sri Lanka’s president Rajapakse as responsible for "authorizing numerous boats in the past 10 months, fuelling the surge of asylum-seekers from Sri Lanka that has threatened to overwhelm Australia’s detention system," The Australian reported Friday. While the complicity of this official in people smuggling was widely known at senior levels of the Gillard government, Foreign Minister Bob Carr during his visit to Sri Lanka in December never raised the matter with the Sri Lankan government, the paper pointed out.
"While official corruption is a common feature of the people-smuggling industry across the world, the involvement of such a senior member of the government would appear to be unprecedented. The assessment inside the Australian government is that the official is "complicit" in people-smuggling, posing a serious obstacle to Australia’s attempts to stop the flow of boats from Sri Lanka," the paper said.
Speaking on behalf of the Australian government, a spokesman for Immigration Minister Chris Bowen said the government was working closely with the Sri Lankans to break the smuggling syndicates, but declined to address the allegations against the official directly. "As you know, we do not publicly discuss people-smuggling or national security intelligence," the paper quoted the spokesman as saying.
Colombo’s senior envoy to Australia flatly denied the allegations and described the allegations as a "smear campaign against the (official)".
According to Customs and Border Protection, a total of 122 asylum boats left Sri Lanka for Australia last year, with the first arriving in February.
A spokesman for the Australia-based Tamil Refugee Council (TRC), Trevor Grant, said in a press release: “We have suspected this all along. It would be virtually impossible for so many boats to leave such a small island without co-operation from the Sri Lankan Navy, and its Government…Even when the Foreign Minister Bob Carr went to Sri Lanka last December to talk about the increased flow of asylum-seeker boats with high-ranking officials, including the president, he did not mention it. Yet at the same time he offered $45 million of Australian taxpayers’ money to supposedly help stop the boats, knowing full well that there was corruption going on within Government ranks," Mr Grant said.
Meanwhile, TRC also accused the opposition Foreign Affairs spokesperson, Julie Bishop, for giving a misleading account of her meeting with Tamil representatives during her visit to Sri Lanka, according to a Tamil MP who spoke to her at length. Bishop had told listeners to ABC Radio’s Connect Asia program on Tuesday that she had spoken to Tamil National Alliance MPs, and other Tamil people in the north, where most Tamils live, and had seen or heard no evidence of persecution of Tamils. TRC pointed out that Tamil National Alliance MP Sivagnanam Sritharan contradicted Bishop’s assertions in a recent Canadian Tamil Radio interview.