People smugglers are organising for more asylum seekers to come to Australia by boat from from Sri Lanka, India and Indonesia, a regional terrorism expert has cautioned.
And while the federal government’s hardline policy of sending boats back has disrupted the flow of vessels trying to get to the country, it has not dismantled the criminal networks able to move people across Asia, including to Australia.
Professor Rohan Gunaratna, head of the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, warned that people-smuggling networks remain active across the region.
“The on-going people smuggling operations are being run out of south-east Asia, notably Indonesia, Thailand, Laos and Malaysia. The boats travel from Sri Lanka, India and Indonesia to Australia,” Professor Gunaratna told Fairfax Media.
“The human smuggling industry located overseas with links to Sri Lanka and Australia is active and is driving these ventures.”
Two men arrested in Malaysia last week and charged with terrorism and immigration offences have links to Australia.
Sornalingam Puvaneswaran, a 31-year-old Tamil, was arrested on July 3 in Kuala Lumpur.
Puvaneswaran, who also went by the name Eesan, is alleged to have been a member of the intelligence wing of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the Tamil Tigers.
He fled Sri Lanka in 2009 as the Sri Lankan army crushed the secessionist Tigers. Puvaneswaran reached Australia and was found to have a well-founded fear of persecution, and was granted asylum and a permanent residency visa.
He lived in Dandenong, in Melbourne’s south-east, and was in Malaysia on a three-month visa to visit his wife and children when he was arrested.
Puvaneswaran’s family deny any links to the LTTE, and say he faces persecution and torture if he is handed over to Sri Lankan authorities.
Arrested alongside Puvaneswaran was 37-year-old Singarajah Edman, also alleged to have been a member of the LTTE. Professor Gunaratna described Edman as an explosives expert “who was smuggling people to Australia”.
Malaysian police allege the pair was part of a group trying to revive the LTTE movement, had plotted and carried out terrorist attacks, and was involved in smuggling people across the globe.
“The items confiscated in the operation include a number of fake passports of various countries and a fake stamp from the Malaysian Immigration Department and foreign missions,” said Inspector General of Police Tan Sri Khalid Abu Bakar.
The pair remains in Malaysian police custody, and members of the Tamil community there hold grave concerns for their safety if they are forcibly returned to Sri Lanka. Australian embassy officials are providing consular assistance to Puvaneswaran.
“It would be appalling and a grave violation of the non-refoulement principle ... if Sornalingam Puvaneswaran, a person that has been granted asylum by Australia, is deported back to Sri Lanka and his life put in danger. If he were to be deported, he should be sent back to Australia instead of Sri Lanka,” R. Thevarajan, from human rights organisation Suaram, said.
The LTTE was vanquished by Sri Lanka’s armed forces, to end the country’s 30-year civil war, in 2009.
The Sri Lankan government regularly alleges an "LTTE rump" exists within the Tamil diaspora with goals of reviving the movement, mainly with money channelled through Europe.
The Tamil community says the Tiger movement is finished, and says government scaremongering over its return is a smokescreen for the continued harassment of the Tamil ethnic minority.
Professor Gunaratna said the LTTE movement was diminished, but remained active though it has the support of less than 10 per cent of Tamils.
“The LTTE was dismantled in Sri Lanka but their overseas network is intact. The group remains active in Tamil Nadu in India and in the West including in Australia and New Zealand.”
Professor Gunaratna said Australia’s hardline policy of turning back boats had been effective in reducing the number of attempted journeys.
“Australian government agencies have significant understanding and knowledge about the human smuggling industry.”
The UN is conducting an inquiry into allegations of war crimes committed by both the Sri Lankan military and the Tamil Tigers in the last months of the civil war. A previous UN report estimated 40,000 Tamil civilians were killed by Sri Lankan army troops.