Sri Lankans and Irregular Migration: A Journey to Die For?



On the 3rd of December, 2013, the Australian government announced new policy that aimed to further discourage the arrival of irregular migrants in Australia. Immigration Minister Scott Morrison announced that, effective immediately, the government has put a cap on permanent protection visas for asylum seekers arriving by boat. This means that those asylum seekers who are already in Australia will be left in a state of limbo with no prospects of obtaining work permission until the cap is reset in mid-2014. Critics have labeled the move “brutal,”[i] but the Tony Abbott-led government insists that this is a necessary move to combat the activities of people smugglers and discourage the dangerous sea voyage that many, including Sri Lankans, have unfortunately attempted.


Current Situation


During the period 2011-2012, there were 825 recorded cases of Sri Lankan nationals attempting irregular maritime arrivals (IMA) in Australia.[ii] This constituted approximately 11 per cent of all IMAs in the country during that period. As IMAs from Sri Lanka clearly constitute a significant portion of the total, the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service has begun issuing Sinhalese and Tamil notices in the form of radio and TV advertisements and flyers in Sri Lanka that discourage the dangerous maritime journey, featuring case studies and information on the consequences of attempting the voyage.[iii],[iv]


Australia is among a handful of countries that draw irregular Sri Lankan migrants to their shores. In the European Union, the most popular destinations for undocumented Sri Lankan nationals seeking residency and/or work opportunities through irregular means were the UK, France, and the Netherlands, as of 2010. The most number of cases of undocumented Sri Lankan nationals who have been ordered to leave was recorded in the UK, and out of the 1,685 undocumented nationals, only 46 per cent departed the UK of their own free will.[v] Likewise, in France, a total of 1,080 undocumented nationals were ordered to leave, out of which a mere 10 per cent departed of their own free will. Taking into account all nationalities, it is estimated that there are between 1.9 and 3.8 million irregular migrants in the EU, which constitute between 7 and 13 per cent of the overall migrant population.[vi]


Canada is another popular destination for irregular Sri Lankan migrants, particularly for those traveling by boat. The extensive coastline enables people smugglers to target several points of entry, but a primary hotspot for irregular maritime arrivals is off Vancouver Island on the western coast. In one well-documented incident that occurred in October 2009, Vancouver Island played host to 76 irregular maritime arrivals of Sri Lankan nationals.[vii] In another incident, one which helped change Canada’s refugee policy, [viii] 492 Sri Lankan nationals arrived off the coast of Victoria, British Columbia in August 2010.[ix] However, the total number of IMAs could be much higher, as official sources in Canada indicate there were 635 recorded cases of Sri Lankan nationals seeking asylum in 2011.[x] The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime estimates that the predominant nationality of maritime arrivals on the western coast of Canada, after having crossed the North Pacific Ocean from South East Asia, is Sri Lankan.[xi] A common practice is for these IMAs to use Bangkok, Thailand as a transit point, oftentimes temporarily residing in safe houses until they make their journey to the southern part of the country where they board fishing vessels ready to take them across the Pacific Ocean.[xii]


Dangers of Irregular Migration


image courtesy

image courtesy

In many cases, migrants who make the payment prior to being smuggled by sea have done so by selling property and other assets, or borrowing extensively from family members and friends. These lenders may have given up a substantial portion of their savings to finance the migrant’s journey. By doing so, communities may lose valuable financial assets and economic empowerment to a cause which may ultimately not be successful, given that the migrant’s journey is fraught with danger and a high degree of risk. Even if the migrant is successful in reaching his destination, he still faces the difficult task of finding work and a sufficient source of income. Given the fact that the fee that many migrants have to pay to be smuggled is several times their annual income in Sri Lanka, it is clear that there is an enormous amount of pressure on the migrant to find work and earnings that are sufficient enough to cover any debt they may have incurred. However, a lack of employment opportunities in the host country and desperation to pay back these debts may force migrants to undertake illegal activities, further implicating them in a life of crime and risking serious consequences if caught by law enforcement authorities.


Those who do manage to make these payments are usually transported to safe houses that act as pre-departure points that temporarily house these migrants. But these safe houses are rarely safe. In many cases, migrants waiting to travel by boat are crowded into squalid premises and are forced to wait up to several months before making their sea voyage. They may be confined to these premises by armed guards in order to maintain secrecy and order, and may be mistreated and suffer from physical and emotional abuse as well. In some cases, migrants are forced to work for their smugglers before continuing their journey in order to repay them for the food and lodging provided in these safe houses. This work could entail recruiting other migrants but could also involve smuggling drugs across oceans and through borders, jeopardizing their safety and implicating them in particularly serious criminal offenses.[xiii]


After the transit period in these safe houses, the migrants are transported to sea vessels. Oftentimes these vessels are overcrowded and are lacking in basic sanitary requirements. Some of those who do survive the sea voyage have reported a severe lack of hygiene and the presence of faeces, urine, and vomit during the journey, potentially leading to the spread of disease. There may also be scarce supplies of food and water; in May 2011, severe dehydration and starvation led to 61 deaths on board a vessel in the Mediterranean Sea.[xiv] Life vests may not be provided, and in many cases are an additional expense; for poorer migrants these may be a luxury item they cannot afford. Overcrowded and rough sea conditions can lead to migrants falling overboard, and without any safety equipment, often perish at sea.


Physical and sexual assault are not uncommon on these journeys. In particular, women may be subjected to systematic rape and abuse, and in some cases may be forced to carry out sexual favours for their smugglers in order to complete their journey. The treatment of migrants by their smugglers can reach levels of criminal assault, but their irregular status means they are often reluctant to report these crimes to law enforcement authorities.


The cause of death of migrants en route to their final destination are often unknown, as bodies may be lost at sea. However, some estimates indicate that over 2,000 irregular migrants perish at sea every year.[xv] In October 2013, over 350 bodies were recovered after a boat carrying asylum seekers caught fire and capsized off the coast of Lampedusa in Italy.[xvi] In another well-documented case, approximately 350 individuals died when an unseaworthy vessel sank off the coast of Indonesia on its way to Australia in 2001. A further 50 lives were lost when a ship crashed into rocks off Christmas Island in Australia in 2010. In fact, between October 2009 and June 2012, 605 irregular migrants died at sea while attempting the perilous journey to Australia.[xvii] A report carried out by the Australian Crime Commission and published in 2013 states that Sri Lanka is among the top four source countries of asylum seekers arriving by boat.[xviii] As border protection measures are strengthened, as is the case in Australia and Canada, smugglers are undertaking increasingly risky methods of transporting migrants, thereby endangering their lives.


As border control measures become more stringent and the dangers of sea voyages become more apparent, there is a need to question what policy measures can be put in place to deter individuals from undertaking irregular maritime migration, including mechanisms implemented by both source countries and destination countries.


Methods of Curbing Irregular Migration


Among the most pressing concerns related to curbing irregular migration is addressing the root causes of such activities. Lack of socio-economic development and widespread poverty in certain parts of the country are key push factors that force individuals to undertake the dangerous maritime journeys to other countries.


As of now, there are very few mechanisms the government of Sri Lanka (GoSL) has put in place that aim to deter its country’s nationals from attempting these life-threatening voyages.[xix] Potential migrants may be ill-informed about the dangers of people smugglers and the risks associated with traveling in their company. Awareness campaigns about these potential dangers with case studies placed in newspapers, local television channels, and radio stations could benefit potential migrants in allowing them to make more informed decisions prior to attempting these journeys. The GoSL could also enlist the cooperation of local community leaders to inform their followers about the dangers involved, particularly leaders of religious and ethnic communities in areas that have high rates of irregular migrant departures, thereby tapping into key information channels through which potential migrants may be influenced.


Apart from these mechanisms related to raising awareness, there is limited evidence of other effective means of discouraging migrants from first attempting the journey. However, there are methods that can be implemented to deter repeat offences of irregular migration, with destination countries playing a potentially important role. For example, these countries can introduce reintegration programmes for migrants upon returning to their home country. Such programmes aim to deter individuals from making repeated attempts by helping provide them with a livelihood and a sustainable source of income upon their return. One such programme is provided by the Australian government, with the collaboration of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), and involves a six-month reintegration programme that aims to provide returned irregular migrants with the means to develop their skill sets and obtain employment locally. The programme involves creating a personal profile with a potential skill set for each individual and subsequently matching their profile with specific occupational areas. Funding is then provided to develop these skill sets through the purchase of physical capital, such as tractors, livestock, or three-wheelers, or through support for vocational training programmes so that migrants may acquire new skills.[xx] Doing so could help ensure that these individuals have a sustainable income stream and are not forced to resort to repeated incidences of illegal migration. Other destination countries can adopt similar approaches, thereby easing pressure off the source country to curb irregular migration on its own.


As the dangers of these journeys are becoming increasingly apparent, it is imperative that both source countries and destination countries engage in cooperative measures to help discourage these high-risk and potentially life-threatening activities. Doing so will not only help ensure the safety of these migrants, but could also provide them with a renewed sense of socio-economic empowerment.

[i] Immigration Minister Scott Morrison Freezes Visas for Refugees, 2013, The Telegraph News, available [].

[ii] Rogers, Simon, 2013, Australia and Asylum Seekers: The Key Facts You Need to Know, The Guardian, available [].

[iii] Australian Customs and Border Protection Service YouTube Channel, accessed December 2013, available [].

[iv] Australian Customs and Border Protection Service, 2013, Operation Sovereign Borders Communication Material, available [].

[v] Karunaratne, Chandana and Ashani Abayasekara, 2012, Managed Migration: Review of Readmission Agreements and a Case Study of Sri Lanka, Institute of Policy Studies of Sri Lanka.

[vi] ibid.

[vii] United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, 2011, Smuggling of Migrants by Sea, Issue Paper.

[viii] DeRosa, Katie, 2012, Special Report: An Investigation of Canada’s Refugee Policy, Times Colonist, available [].

[ix] ibid.

[x] OECD, 2013, International Migration Database.

[xi] United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, 2011, Smuggling of Migrants by Sea, Issue Paper.

[xii] ibid. United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, 2011, Smuggling of Migrants by Sea, Issue Paper.

[xiii] ibid.

[xiv] ibid.

[xv] ibid.

[xvi] Siegfried, Kristy, 2013, Migrant Deaths in Mediterranean Spark Debate, But Little Action, IRIN, available [].

[xvii] The Guardian, 2013, Asylum-Seeker Deaths at Sea Total Nearly 1,000 in Just Over a Decade, available [].

[xviii] ibid.

[xix] Karunaratne, Chandana and Ashani Abayasekara, 2012, Managed Migration: Review of Readmission Agreements and a Case Study of Sri Lanka, Institute of Policy Studies of Sri Lanka.

[xx] ibid.