By Stewart Bell –
Almost 150 Sri Lankan migrants attempting to reach Canada have been arrested in Benin in the latest sign West Africa has become a transit hub for people smuggling.
A smuggling syndicate brought the migrants to Benin before demanding more money and threatening to harm them. All 148 eventually agreed to return to Sri Lanka and were deported Thursday.
A Canadian official confirmed the incident. The office of Jason Kenny, the Citizenship and Immigration Minister, said it showed that “thugs and criminals” continued to view Canada as a human smuggling destination.
Coming after similar incidents in Togo and Ghana, the case points to the region’s new prominence as a stopover for human smugglers targeting Canada. The routing shift may be a response to a crackdown on human smugglers using Southeast Asia as a transit point.
“One of the universal truths about human smuggling is that networks will use points of least resistance to get people through,” said Jean-Philippe Chauzy, spokesman for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), which helped the Benin migrants.
“So when you have a border that’s being toughened or when you’ve got increased surveillance at ports or airports in one part of the world, then the network will basically adapt. And West Africa is probably … a transit region now for migrants.”
Last year, more than 200 Sri Lankans who had paid agents for passage to Canada were abandoned in Togo. In May, police in neighbouring Ghana, acting on a tip from the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, arrested several Sri Lankans who were allegedly planning to use a fishing boat to ferry migrants to Canada.
More Sri Lankans turned up in Benin several weeks ago.
“It seems they were completely stranded there,” Mr. Chauzy said. “I don’t have any information as to whether they were going to Canada or not.”
The IOM provided food, water and medical aid, while the UN refugee agency was brought in to ask if any wanted to make claims for protection. But none did; all agreed to return voluntarily to Sri Lanka. Three IOM staff accompanied them on the plane.
“The sad reality is that people paying smuggling networks usually are not aware of the difficulties and the risks they are about to take,” Mr. Chauzy said from Geneva.
“And smuggling networks tend to paint a very rosy picture, or at least be very economical with the truth, as to what those people are going to face on the smuggling routes.
“It’s also sad because I’m pretty sure that those Sri Lankans … paid a sizeable sum of money to the smugglers. Somehow they saw that as an investment on their future and they ended up stranded in Benin and now they’re returning.”
In 2009, a ship arrived off the British Columbia coast with 76 Sri Lankan asylum seekers. The MV Sun Sea followed in 2010 with 492 Sri Lankans.
In response, the government drafted a controversial anti-human smuggling bill that passed its second reading in the Senate this week.
“This proves what we’ve said all along — that thugs and criminals continue to target Canada,” said Alexis Pavlich, Mr. Kenney’s spokesman, responding to news of the arrests in Benin.
Refugee advocates argue Sri Lankans are fleeing human rights abuses suffered by the ethnic Tamil minority.