A case of suspected illegal human trafficking of at least over 40 individuals from the coast of Kochi which took place on January 12th has so far led to no arrests, although police are currently pursuing several leads.
At the current time, it appears impossible to ascertain the total number of migrants who have been trafficked in the incident, with different reports quoting numbers as varied as 40 to 200, given that different groups of migrants arrived and stayed in different parts of Kerala during the incident.
Given the scale of the operation, police suspect that an experienced trafficking ring is involved. The case is being investigated by Special Branch DySP Raveendranath, and a team headed by SI Sojan.
How it happened
The group of migrants had reportedly stayed in houses rented in New Delhiâ€™s Ambedkar Colony prior to January 5. They provided Delhi addresses when they arrived in Kerala on January 5, and booked rooms in various hotels and homesteads in Cherai, Chottanikkara, Malinakara and Kodungallur. The six resorts that the group stayed in at Cherai are being investigated by police.
The boat was reportedly paid for in cash, and cost a sum of Rs 1.02 crore. The group also allegedly purchased 12,000 litres of diesel costing Rs 10 lakh, and five water tankers whilst staying in Cherai.
The group reportedly left the coast of Kerala from Munambam in a boat named Dayamatha. The boat was purchased by two individuals named Anilkumar and Srikanthan from another individual named Jibin Anthony on January 7.
The investigation first began, when people around the area found around 70 abandoned bags. These are believed to belong to people who could either not make the journey or were not allowed to carry beyond a specified number of bags.
Special Branch DySP Raveendranath said that the group, comprising over 40 individuals including women and infants, are from various places across India, like Delhi and Chennai. He said it was impossible to confirm that they were from Sri Lanka, although he did say that they â€ścould have been from Sri Lanka, but had been living in India for many yearsâ€ť.
A Coast Guard official also specified to TNM that the group did not include individuals who had been trafficked against their will, but instead comprised of willing illegal migrants who wanted to leave their country out of their own interest.
Eyewitnesses told Onmanorama that members of the group looked distraught and unsettled when leaving the coast of Kerala on the morning of January 12. One female member of the group also reportedly required medical treatment, and had visited a hospital in Kuzhipilly in the previous days.
Boat owner, two others detained by police
While Anilkumar has been detained and questioned by police, Srikanthan, a Sri Lankan native who arrived in India three years previously, is still on the run. DySP Raveendranath told TNM that Anilkumar has merely been questioned, and that he has not been arrested.
Two others, Deepak and Prabhu, have also been detained by police in Delhi, and will soon be brought to Kochi for further questioning. Deepak and Prabhu were both meant to be aboard the ship, but had been forced to return when they could not afford to pay the fee due to the human traffickers.
Trafficking ring suspected
Police suspect the involvement of a well-oiled trafficking ring operational in Kerala and Tamil Nadu.
They are on the lookout for suspected human traffickers Srikanthan, Thiruvallur Ravi and Selvam.
Police recently discovered that one of those suspected to be involved, Srikanthan, has a Swiss bank account, and suspect that he used it to store his gains from previous human trafficking ventures.
Ernakulam District Police Chief Rahul R Nair also told TNIE, â€śWhen Sri Lankan Navy and Indian Navy tighten surveillance in the Bay of Bengal, [human trafficking operations tend to] shift to the Kerala coast.
Coast Guard, Navy on lookout
A Coast Guard official told TNM that while the Coast Guard was not investigating the case, it was helping local police and the special branch in its investigation. However, he clarified that the Coast Guardâ€™s search efforts for the boat allegedly carrying the migrants will probably not bear fruit. â€śWe made an aerial attempt to search for the missing boat. Our efforts are still in progress. But, since the navy and coast guard received the information about this incident late, its just an attemptâ€”a futile attempt.â€ť
While conflicting media reports have said that the group was on its way to Australia, New Zealand and the Christmas Islands, DySP Raveendranath said it is currently impossible to know the intended destination of those in the boats.