Canberra has drawn up plan to curb people-smuggling

Indians are among the 34 ‘boat people’ — a term used to refer to people who risk an extremely hazardous ocean journey for many days to reach a country they consider better than the one they left behind — who attempted to illegally land on Australian shores on December 15.

Answering questions here, Martin Bowles, Acting Secretary, Australian Department of Immigration and Citizenship, refused to reveal the exact number of Indians in the group.

Admitting that Australia didn’t get too many Indians on boats, he said Sri Lanka and Indonesia were the source of most of the attempted boat launches. “No, we don’t see a lot of Indians within the mix,” he said.

The group of 34 — consisting of Sri Lankans, Iranians, and Afghans, apart from Indians — was taken to Manus Island in Papua New Guinea, taking the total number at the site to 101.

After the initial panic in the country on the huge number of boat people landing on its shores this year, a focussed Australia has drawn up a plan to make sure that these people — which Australia insists are economic migrants — head elsewhere. As many as 65 smuggling ventures, involving 2,900 people were disrupted this year, and the involuntary return of more than 700 Sri Lankan people-smuggling clients has been taken up since August 2012. “In the last six months, a majority [of the illegal immigrants] have come from Sri Lanka and are looking for work,” said Mr. Bowles.

During the weekend, Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr was in Sri Lanka, and spoke to a range of officials to help Colombo curtail the number of boats being launched from there. On Monday, he announced a four-point plan to fight people-smuggling. This included increased on-water co-operation, intelligence sharing and reducing incentives for smuggling ventures.

Australia also put in place, with Sri Lanka, a Joint Working Group on People Smuggling and Transnational Crime. The inaugural meet was chaired by Sri Lanka’s Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa. “There is a message from these talks to people in Sri Lanka — by getting on that boat you risk your life, your money and you will be sent home,” Senator Carr said.

Australia launched a high-visibility, $700,000 campaign in towns and villages identified as people-smuggling hotspots, including by word of mouth, radio, television and cinema advertising. Officials claimed that this was having an effect on the people.

Australia also promised $45 million during a period of five years under AusAID’s Sri Lankan programme to build or rebuild poor and rural communities. The Australian officials seem unperturbed that some of the people who are forced to return are subjected to extensive questioning and are held in prisons. “We work very closely with Sri Lanka on the re-admission processes and we will continue to do so at the top levels of both governments,” Mr. Bowles said.

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