A key Australian government tool to combat people smuggling in Sri Lanka can be easily dodged by perpetrators and is forcing fishermen struggling in the country’s economic crisis to pay a monthly fee.
Official sources have also told the ABC they are investigating the brother of a Sri Lankan government MP over allegations of people smuggling to Australia.
The revelations paint a picture of the ineffective measures put forward by the Australian government to fix the issue, according to experts.
More than 1,000 Sri Lankan people have tried to get to Australia by boat this year, many paying thousands of dollars to people smugglers to make the weeks-long journey in rough seas on fishing trawlers.
June 2022 saw the highest number of illegal boat interceptions by Australian Border Force since 2013. All were from Sri Lanka.
The stark increase is in large part due to Sri Lanka’s economic crisis, which has cut off basic services to millions of people.
Following the ABC’s reporting on the new wave of Sri Lankan asylum seekers in June, Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil visited Colombo, donating resources to authorities in the country to “counter people smuggling”.
The Australian government gave 4,200 GPS trackers to the Sri Lankan government to surveil fishing trawlers, the boats used by people smugglers.
But fishermen have told the ABC the trackers, called vessel monitoring systems (VMS), can be removed.
“This isn’t working. Most of the people when they are going to immigrate illegally, they will remove the fuse from the VMS system and they’re going,” said Nawaz Essa, fisherman and former head of the boat owners’ association.
“Most of the people are immigrating illegally to Australia. They want to get that good life in Australia.
“The economic crisis is going up in Sri Lanka, each and every day the prices [are] going up … so most of the people they want to save their family and their children.”
An Australian Border Force spokesman said the government’s policy was “steadfast”.
“People who illegally travel to Australia by boat will not settle here permanently,” he said in a statement.
Operation Sovereign Borders is about defeating people smugglers who manipulate vulnerable men, women and children to risk their lives at sea.
People smugglers are criminals and will use any means to earn a profit at the expense of others.
“Every Sri Lankan people smuggling boat that has entered Australian waters since October 2013 has been stopped, and all those on board returned safely to Sri Lanka,” he said.