As Sri Lanka’s crisis worsens, rising numbers flee by sea

As Sri Lanka’s crisis worsens, rising numbers flee by sea

COLOMBO: The Sri Lankan Navy said on Thursday it has arrested 91 people believed to be trying to leave the country illegally, as attempts to flee the crisis-hit island nation continue to rise.


Fishing boats carrying the migrants were intercepted off the country’s northwest coast in two operations on Tuesday, the navy said in a statement.


Fifteen people were stopped in waters off the port of Marawila and 76 off Chilaw. Those apprehended were aged between 1 and 62, with six thought to be members of a people-smuggling ring.


Sri Lankans over the years have traveled to Australia and other nations illegally for economic and political reasons, but in the past few months the number of incidents has increased.


“During the first half of this year, some 250 people were apprehended while trying to go out of the country by boat,” Navy spokesman Capt. Indika De Silva told Arab News.


“Normally, we apprehend five such boats a year, but during the past 45 days there were three,” he said.


“Smugglers indoctrinate them about the country’s political and economic crises, and tell them that they can be happier abroad.”


The nation of 22 million is battling its worst economic crisis in memory, with people facing skyrocketing inflation, as well as severe shortages of essentials, including food, medicine, cooking gas and fuel.


The government last month warned of a food crisis by August, with local production of rice — the country’s staple — declining after a decision last year to ban all chemical fertilizer. Although the ban has been lifted, the country has been unable to secure fertilizer imports for the coming growing season.


“Cost of living is rocketing and the government has no plan so far to look into the poor’s urgent food and medical needs, so citizens are running away from this country,” rights activist Shreen Saroor told Arab News.


Most of those trying to leave by sea are from farming and fishing families, which face acute poverty.


“Due to the fertilizer issue, they could not cultivate last season. There is no basic staple, that is rice, to survive on. Then fisher folks cannot go to sea due to the fuel crisis,” Saroor said.


She added that not all migrants head to Australia, with some attempting to reach neighboring India as economic refugees.


“At least in Indian refugee camps they will get three meals and some medical care.”


 

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