Oct 01 (The Age) Kudamaduwella, Sri Lanka- Kneeling on the floor of his palatial, gated home, Nishantha Fernando unfurls a roll of nautical charts. Running his finger across the map from Sri Lanka in the direction of Australia he lands upon Christmas Island, which he has circled in pen.
“I have sent around 800 people from here to Australia,” he said, rising to his feet in his lounge room, a statue of Jesus, a stack of bibles and a widescreen television behind him.
“Even though it is illegal, it is not against God.”
It’s a shady business that has experienced a resurgence amid Sri Lanka’s crippling fuel and food crisis this year, with nearly 1000 people having set off since May in rickety trawlers to try and reach Australia illegally by sea.
Most have been rounded up and arrested before they have left Sri Lankan waters. But 183 have had to be returned to Colombo by Australian Border Force after six boats were intercepted by its patrols – the first, most notably, on May 21, the day of Australia’s federal election.
The kingpins who have arranged the journeys and profited from them have largely operated in the shadows, their activities concealed by sub-agents, skippers and crew members who do the dirty work for them.
In a rare interview with a people smuggler, though, Fernando openly admitted he had dispatched boats to Australia.
Approached by The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age at his home two hours’ drive north of Colombo, he said he had sent 12 vessels between 2010 and 2013, at the height of boat arrivals to Australia, all but one of which made it.
Then, in June, as Sri Lanka sank into economic despair, he arranged another boat.
“I didn’t think they would be turned back,” he said of this year’s burst of people leaving the island nation by sea, headed for Australia.
“We thought [Australia] would accept them. We thought they wouldn’t be deported because of the economic situation in the country.
“Our country needs dollars. The easiest way for us to find dollars was for us to send people by either flight or by boat. If each of those people send $100 back to Sri Lanka it’s a big amount of money.”
The Australian government has invested millions to assist Sri Lanka combat people smuggling with training and equipment since introducing its turn-backs policy in 2013, including giving the country two retired patrol ships as well as drones.
It also provided Sri Lanka with GPS trackers this year to help it detect a new wave of boats.
The Sri Lanka Navy has been able to stop some illegal departures – it has intercepted 18 boats this year, arresting 741 people at sea and 224 on land.
But Fernando’s case has raised questions about the appetite of police to go after those actually organising them and profiting from them – even one brazen enough to speak publicly about his exploits.
His latest venture was not successful. It was seized by the navy on June 7 before leaving Sri Lankan waters and the 76 people on board, including its skipper and crew, were turned over to police.
Yet Fernando, who was not on the boat, was not arrested and days later even had his 12-metre trawler returned to him.
Asked how he had managed to steer clear of prosecution, he said he had not put his name on the paperwork for any of his boats, or for that matter, anything he owned, and did not fear arrest.
“Why should I be scared?” Fernando said. “I didn’t go to jail because I didn’t need to go to jail.”