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Sri Lanka urged to repatriate soldiers ‘trafficked’ to Russia

Hundreds of ex-servicemen have been lured to fight as mercenaries in the war, says govt official
Members of the Sri Lankan military participate are seen in this file image. Hundreds of military veterans have reportedly moved to Russia and Ukraine to work as mercenaries.

Members of the Sri Lankan military are seen in this file image. Hundreds of military veterans have reportedly moved to Russia and Ukraine to work as mercenaries. (Photo: AFP)

Published: May 10, 2024 07:14 AM GMT
Updated: May 10, 2024 07:53 AM GMT

Relatives of ex-members of the Sri Lankan armed forces have submitted a written appeal to government authorities seeking their return from the Russia-Ukraine war where they say they have been "trafficked" to fight as mercenaries.

The family members went to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Presidential Secretariat, the Foreign Employment Office, and the Labor Office to deliver their appeal on May 8.

This came as the Sri Lankan government revealed that hundreds of ex-military personnel have been duped into becoming mercenaries in the Russia-Ukraine war after being told they would be employed as military assistants.

At least eight Sri Lankans have died in the war, Sri Lankan police said in a statement on May 9.

The ex-soldiers were taken to the war zone on tourist visas, Ministry of Defense secretary Kamal Gunaratne told reporters on May 8, adding such illegal migration has continued secretly.

“Human trafficking is being done to send retired war heroes to the Russian-Ukrainian war front.... Many false promises have been made,” Gunaratne said in a statement.

He said that there have been reports of land being offered in places like St. Petersburg to recruit individuals for the war.

“Not only that it has been promised that families will receive Russian citizenship and more than 1 million rupees. However, they have not received any money, nor have they been paid any salary,” said Gunaratne.

He said the government is saddened to know “our war heroes are at the front, with some having tragically lost their lives and others sustaining injuries.”

“Their identities remain unknown, and we are diligently working to uncover their identities, as they have enlisted in the conflict outside legal channels,” he added.

Media reports say that besides former soldiers, 13 civilians have joined the Russia-Ukraine war.

Human trafficking surged in Sri Lanka after the nation plunged into the worst economic crisis in its history, said Father Anton Sriyan, executive secretary of the Catholic National Commission for Migration.

“People are being exposed to highly precarious situations, with traffickers and smugglers actively seeking to exploit them,” Sriyan told UCA News on May 9.

He said the commission aims to introduce a program to offer spiritual and mental health support to the families of ex-soldiers who are enduring hardship.

Over the years, the commission has been involved in safe migration programs for people across the country, the priest said.

Gamini Waleboda, a lawmaker supporting family members of the Sri Lankans involved in the war, said that many of the ex-soldiers sold valuables like gold and property to move to the war zone.

"These retired soldiers are motivated by the desire to provide their children with quality education and improve their economic circumstances," he told reporters on May 8.

He confirmed that approximately thirty relatives of the ex-soldiers visited government departments to submit their petition seeking their return.

He said that they have learned that another group is preparing to depart for Russia.

The Russian embassy in Sri Lanka has denied any involvement in facilitating such journeys, Waleboda added.

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Trafficking is one of the largest criminal industries in the world, only outdone by drugs and arms trafficking, and is the fastest-growing crime today.
Victims come from every continent and are trafficked within and to every continent. Asia is notorious as a hotbed of trafficking.
In this series, UCA News introduces our readers to this problem, its victims, and the efforts of those who shine the light of the Gospel on what the Vatican calls “these varied and brutal denials of human dignity.”
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