COLOMBO: Hundreds of Sri Lankans have tried to leave the country illegally so far this year, the navy said on Monday, as it foiled another such attempt over the weekend amid the country’s worst economic turmoil in decades.
Sri Lanka has lacked the foreign currency to buy all it needs from abroad, and has faced extreme shortages of basic necessities including fuel, food, and lately also medicines. Inflation has skyrocketed in recent months and is now running at 40 percent.
The country of 22 million people last month defaulted on its multimillion-dollar foreign debt, and is struggling to secure new shipments of fuel as it uses its last supply of petrol and diesel to keep essential services running.
In search of better opportunities and as the country inches closer to the brink of collapse, a rising number of Sri Lankans have chosen to partake in illegal migration.
Navy spokesman Capt. Indika De Silva said that 54 people are currently in custody, following a raid conducted on Sunday in Batticaloa district in the country’s east coast.
“This year, the number of migrants has increased manifold due to various reasons such as the present economic stress and the smugglers trying to exploit (the situation) by attracting innocent people toward greener pastures,” De Silva told Arab News.
“We have apprehended some 450 people this year, including this batch, which is double the number arrested the whole of last year.”
Over the years, Sri Lankans have illegally traveled to Australia and other nations for economic and political reasons, but the number increased in recent months as the worsening crisis appears to have also emboldened human traffickers.
“With recent economic hardships, illegal smugglers pitched the business again to get large payments by taking people on this journey. People are also willing to take the risk,” Colombo-based human rights activist, Muheed Jeeran, told Arab News.
Many of them who are headed to Australia were unaware that the government down under has been turning back unauthorized boat arrivals.
“Unfortunately, these vulnerable people don’t know that the Australian government will return them in those boats with their new laws in place,” he added.
“The ultimate winners are human smugglers.”