Illegal migration from Kochi's Munambam harbour in Kerala raises questions about efficiency of coastal security

Investigation by Kerala Police into a set of bags found abandoned at various spots along the coast in Ernakulam has revealed a well co-ordinated operation to smuggle out people to foreign countries through Munambam fishing harbour in Kochi.

The latest to set sail from Munambam is believed to be a group of 41 people, including a few Sri Lankan refugees, from different parts of the country. The group that converged at Kochi on 5 January left for an overseas destination a week later by procuring fuel, food, water, medicines and other essentials required for a long sea journey from various outlets around Munambam.

Police had initially suspected it as a case of human trafficking. However, detailed probe showed it as a case of illegal migration of people looking for greener pastures in foreign countries. The investigators believe that the destination of the group is New Zealand.

A senior police officer associated with the investigation said that a Delhi-based illegal immigration mafia was behind the operation as per the evidence they have gathered so far. The investigation has showed involvement of a travel agency from Madhya Pradesh in the human smuggling. The group that has ventured into the sea included people from Delhi, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Kerala.

Illegal migration from Kochis Munambam harbour in Kerala raises questions about efficiency of coastal security

Representational image. Reuters

Why the north India-based operators chose Kochi — which has a huge presence of coastal and deep sea surveillance agencies like the navy, Coast Guard, coastal police and Marine Enforcement Wing equipped with modern surveillance gadgets — is a moot question that perplexes the authorities.

The coastal security was tightened in Kerala, which has a long coastline, along with other coastal states, in the wake of the Kargil war and the 26/11 terror attacks in Mumbai. As per this, eight coastal police stations were set up along the coast in the state to guard the coastal boundary and to monitor the sea up to five nautical miles from the coast.

One of the stations is in Kochi, a major port city and fishing centre frequented by hundreds of fishing vessels from all over the country and ships from across the world every day. The Coast Guard, which is tasked with security beyond the boundary of the coastal police, was equipped with most modern security apparatus, including a remote operating system (ROS) post 26/11.

The ROS, set up at a cost of Rs 601 crore in 2012, has high-end surveillance gadgets, electro-optic sensors, communication equipment on light houses at 46 locations across the Indian mainland and island territories.

Apart from these, the naval harbour at Kochi was also equipped with an Integrated Underwater Harbour Defense and Surveillance System (IUHDSS) capable of detecting, tracking, identifying and generating warning for all types of underwater and surface threats post 26/11.

None of these modern security apparatus helped in detecting the vessel that left the shores of Kochi with 41 illegal migrants. The Coast Guard, Marine Enforcement Wing and the navy, which were alerted about the vessel, have also not succeeded in tracking it even four days after it hit the sea.

The district police and the state intelligence also failed to detect the surface movements of the migrants and their handlers, who spent a week in the city arranging the vessel and procuring the materials they require for the sea journey.

The Munambam police, who cover the fishing harbour from where the migration mafia bought the vessel for the sea journey, came to know about the operation only after local people at Vadakkekkara alerted them about 20 bags they found abandoned near a boatyard and another location. The subsequent search by the police found another 60 bags abandoned near a temple at Kodungalloor.

A special team set up to probe the operation found that the migrants had stayed at six homestays and lodges near Cherai beach for a week. One of the women in the group had even delivered a baby at a hospital at Chottanikkara during the period and the members celebrated the birth in a homestay at Cherai.

Ernakulam rural superintendent of police Rahul S Nair said it was not possible for the police to detect the illegal migrants as a large number of fishermen from various parts of the country, especially Colachal in Tamil Nadu, frequent the fishing harbour at Munambam everyday.

“We have not been tracking the fishing vessels as the fisheries department has been doing this. The department has assigned automatic identification system (AIS) to fishing vessels to electronically track them. It needs to be probed why the system failed in tracking the vessel that set off with the illegal migrants,” he said.

Leader of Opposition in the state Assembly Ramesh Chennithala has alleged serious lapses on part of the home department and the state intelligence in thwarting the operation. He said that the authorities had not maintained vigil despite several instances of refugees and illegal migrants setting sail for countries in southeast Asia, Australia and New Zealand from Munambam.

Munambam was used as a major transit point by LTTE for trafficking refugees to Australia and other countries when it was active. The Kerala Police had foiled several such attempts in the past. In September 2015, the police had busted a major trafficking racket engaged in smuggling out people from Munambam. One of the agents arrested during the raid was found involved in several trafficking attempts.

The refugees lodged in refugee camps in Tamil Nadu have been mostly using Munambam as a transit point to cross the sea. A report in The Hindu said 1,500 refugees may have tried to flee the refugee camps in Tamil Nadu by undertaking the perilous sea journey since 2009.

Quoting the data available with the Organisation for Elam Refugees’ Rehabilitation (OfERR), the report said that 300 may have succeeded in reaching their destination while around 180 have been missing since then. The rest were detained or arrested at various points and have returned to camps or to Sri Lanka.

The report quoted OfERR chief functionary SC Chandcrahasan as saying that the agents were hooking the refugees by promising better opportunities, a family and asylum in foreign lands. The agents charge Rs 4 lakh to Rs 6 lakh for such illegal journeys.

The latest incident shows that the migration mafia has found Kochi ideal for their illegal operation since security is tight in Tamil Nadu and other coastal states. Rahul Nair said it was difficult for the police to track the illegal migrants as there are hundreds of boatyards along the coast in Ernakulam.

Munambam is preferred by the mafia since more than 300 fishing boats are operated from the harbour everyday and there is no system to track them. A proposal submitted by the police to set up CCTV camera in the harbour has been left on paper for more than five years now.

Opposition leaders have warned that if the authorities fail to set up foolproof security along the coasts, they could be used by terrorists and anti-national forces to carry out their illegal operations.

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Updated Date: Jan 16, 2019 21:12:38 IST

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