The Foreign Ministers of Sri Lanka and Australia launched the Sri Lanka-Australia Joint Working Group (JWG) on People Smuggling and Transnational Crime at the inaugural meeting of the JWG held on Monday.
In his opening remarks, Minister of External Affairs Prof. G. L. Peiris underscored the need for joint action in combating people smuggling, which was inextricably linked to terrorism, gun running, illegal trade in small arms, drug trafficking, money laundering and other transnational crimes. He said that people smuggling was distressing not only from a political perspective but also from a humanitarian angle, and constituted the worst form of exploitation of human beings. The Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs endorsed the comments on the linkages between people smuggling and terrorism, illegal arms trade and human slavery and emphasised that Australia will return people who come to its borders through people smugglers within 72 hours as a part of its new policy. Both Ministers acknowledged the excellent cooperation between the two countries on combating people smuggling and transnational crime and expressed the hope that the Joint Working Group would strengthen existing ties.
Secretary of Defence Gotabaya Rajapaksa stated that people smuggling had become a very lucrative criminal enterprise that ruthlessly exploited the desires of people who sought better prospects overseas through irregular means, often placing the lives of these illegal migrants at risk. He expressed confidence that the JWG would allow both countries to address a range of related issues in a more holistic manner.
Secretary Defence also spoke of the continuation of the LTTE's international network despite its military defeat in Sri Lanka, and the use of LTTE vessels to transport a large number of illegal migrants through international waters to other nations including Australia since the end of the conflict. These linkages not only allowed economic migrants to seek asylum under false pretences, but allowed trained terrorists to escape justice in Sri Lanka and pose a threat to the domestic security of the nations they entered. Given that normalcy had returned to the North and East swiftly following the end of the conflict,
He said that those attempting to migrate illegally from Sri Lanka to other countries are primarily economic migrants. Refuting continued allegations of harassment and torture of failed asylum seekers on return to Sri Lanka, the Secretary said that such allegations had no basis in fact as Sri Lanka treats all such returnees in keeping with its domestic laws and international obligations and with utmost fairness.
Secretary of the Ministry of Immigration and Citizenship of Australia, Martin Bowles said that JWG provided an ideal platform to discuss issues of concern to both countries in the areas of people smuggling and transnational crime and commended the Government of Sri Lanka for the excellent cooperation extended to the Australian authorities. Mr Bowles also described the significant changes made to Australian policies in recent times in order to send a clear signal to people smugglers that putting people's lives at risk would not be tolerated.
The delegates deliberated on a wide range of issues including, cooperation in combating people smuggling and strengthening border protection measures, Returns and Readmission, cooperation in legal matters, Training and Capacity building, Law Enforcement Cooperation, Public awareness campaigns to combat people smuggling, and cooperation within regional processes (ARF/Bali Process) during the JWG session.
The next session of the Joint Working Group will be held in Canberra, Australia in 2013.