Sri Lanka fishermen hooked on prostitution, people smuggling

by Amal Jayasinghe
- Rising fuel prices and high bank interest rates are forcing Sri Lankan fishermen to take up a more lucrative flesh trade and use their trawlers to smuggle people, officials and police say.

The latest catch of 17 would-be illegal immigrants to Italy was netted by police in the north-western coastal town of Negombo earlier this month, police said adding that two boatmen were also in custody.

Small boats packed like sardines with young men seeking greener pastures in Europe as well as in Japan and Australia are frequently detected or turned back after reaching their destination.

Sri Lanka’s fisheries minister Mahinda Rajapakse admits the situation has become critical if fishermen are being driven to become either male prostitues or people smugglers.

The price of diesel has risen by more than 120 percent in the past 18 months and bank lending rates have soared beyond 30 percent making it difficult for fishermen to meet their costs with the day’s catch.

"I am of the view that boy prostitution is associated with the decline of the coastal fishing economy and the failure of the local economy to offer alternative sources of cash income comparable to what was earned before.

"Male prostitution is an activity that brings this kind of income," the minister said at a recent seminar here.

Child rights groups fear there may be thousands of child prostitutes along the island’s coastal areas where tourist resorts are sometimes located in the middle of fishing villages.

Child prostitutes have also become magnets for foreign and local paedophiles, despite the arrest of dozens under new laws aimed at discouraging sex tourism and protecting children.

Minister Rajap-akse has called for a comprehensive plan to improve living conditions along coastal regions and persuade fishermen to carry on with their trade.

Central Bank figures show that deep sea fishing declined marginally last year while fish imports increased despite Sri Lanka’s island status.

Many fishermen are putting their boats to more profitable but illegal use — transporting would be migrants to Europe and the Far East.

In April, police arrested the owner and skipper of a small fishing boat that was packed with 123 men who were on their way to Italy. They were forced to return when their boat collided with an Indian craft.

Fishing boats, which are designed to carry a handful of crewmen, are equipped with deep freezers to store their catch for a few days. But some fishermen are now converting the cold rooms into living quarters for illegal immigrants.

Fisheries ministry officials privately admit they can do little to discourage the roaring business in people smuggling as Sri Lanka lacks a coast guard system.

Fees for travelling to Europe or Australia range from 150,000 rupees to 300,000 (1,600 to 3,200 dollars) for a place on a trawler.

Police say they have had reports of crews scuttling the boat near foreign shores, abandoning their human cargo.

In April this year, some 24 Sri Lankans were found wandering in the bush near Exmouth, in Western Australia’s isolated northwest after they were allegedly abandoned by people-smugglers.

Australian police who took the asylum-seekers into custody said they were lucky to be alive.

They had wandered in the harsh country with little food and water for three days before being found. Some had cuts on their feet, but no one was badly hurt. The Australian High Commission in a statement later warned Sri Lankans not to fall hook, line and sinker to smugglers and undertake the high-risk journey as they were almost certain to be sent back on discovery.