Forty four Sri Lankans- almost all from the north and east, last Saturday (September 10) boarded a multi-day vessel, “Nethra Duwa”, off the shores of Kalmunai. Their objective to reach Australia in the next three weeks.
They had each paid an advance of Rs 200,000 upwards for their journey that had been organised in the past two months.
Seven-year-old Yogendra Kumar Nidushan, his brother Dinujan and their parents were among those on board. They were residents of Vavuniya, and was the only family on board the vessel.
The passengers were happy. They had got through the first obstacle of boarding the trawler without being detected by the police. They had with them foodstuff and dry rations.
|The multi-day vessel Nethra Duwa
|The picture above shows the four-year-old child with his mother.
|The ‘Boat-people’ leaving courts on Wednesday. Pix by Mangala Weerasekera
Some 12 nautical miles out at sea, or just over an hour’s sailing, the passengers in the vessel panicked, as they heard the sound of high speed boats approaching them, shattering their dreams of reaching the shores of Australia.
Three Dvoras of the Sri Lanka Navy had surrounded the vessel. Announcements were made asking the boat people to remain calm. Sailors soon boarded the vessel, and the skipper of the trawler and his assistant were told they were under arrest.
They were instructed to proceed to Trincomalee.
But, little did the boat people realise that the skipper and his assistant were actually decoys who had already tipped off the Terrorism Investigations Division (TID).
According to a report filed in Courts by the TID, the outfit had advance information about the voyage.
The TID had been tipped off that a group of former LTTE cadres were trying to illegally migrate to Australia by boat.
The investigators using decoys wanted to find out not only about those involved in the racket, but also their modus operandi in smuggling people out of the country.
Investigations revealed that at least five people from Trincomalee, Vavuniya, Kegalle and Kurunegala were involved in organising the voyage.
The main suspect A. Jesudasan, alias ‘Sampath’ from Trincomalee, was also onboard, along with three other suspects, according to investigators.
Investigations have now been handed over to the Criminal Investigations Department (CID).
Six of those who were onboard are being held under detention orders, under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), following a report by the TID that they had terrorist links.
The remaining 38 were produced before the Colombo Chief Magistrate Rashmi Singappuli who remanded the rest with the exception of the two children.
Sisira Senanayake who appeared on behalf of Ms Yogendran Kumar Kamalani, appealed for the release of her two children. Accordingly Court directed to release the children to the grandmother.
However, the four-year-old child refused to leave his mother, while the elder child was handed over to the grandmother.
The case will be taken up again on September 28.
Most of those onboard claimed that they opted to migrate to Australia by boat, as they did not see a future in their villages. Some of them had relatives overseas, who had funded them, to make the perilous journey to Australia. But instead they ended up at the Welikada remand prison.
The issue of Sri Lankans’ illegal migration to Australia has been a recurring problem to both countries, though there has been a decline in arrivals in the past year.
Nearly 100 ‘boat people’ sent back in the past few years
Australian High Commissioner Kathy Klugman told the Sunday Times that the number of Sri Lankans illegally arriving in their country was on the decline. Following are excerpts of an interview:
Q: How many Sri Lankans are being held in Christmas Island?
A: The number of Sri Lankans arriving by boat has steadily declined. For instance, for this year, there have been less than 100 irregular maritime arrivals (IMAs) from Sri Lanka, compared with several hundred arrivals in earlier years. People arriving by boat are kept in detention in Australia until their asylum claims are processed.
Q: What is the Australian Government’s current position on asylum seekers, after the recent court ruling? Have any Sri Lankans been sent to Malaysia under the new arrangement?
A: The Australian Government remains committed to implementing the Malaysia arrangement. Following the High Court's decision, the Government plans to introduce changes to Australian law this coming week, to allow the arrangement to take effect.
Australia will continue working with countries in the region and international organisations to develop a sustainable regional response to irregular migration.
The arrangements for asylum seekers who are already on Christmas Island remain unchanged. They will have their claims for protection assessed and if they are found to be refugees, they will be able to make a valid visa application, and be settled in Australia.
If they are found not to be refugees, arrangements will be made for their safe return to their home country.
Q: How many Sri Lankan have been deported to Sri Lanka in the past two years, and how many have been granted asylum?
A: Close to 100 Sri Lankans have been returned from Australia in the past few years.
Q: Has the Australian government's position with regard to Sri Lankan asylum seekers changed after the end of the war?
A: Conditions in Sri Lanka have changed markedly since the end of the conflict. This was reflected in new guidelines issued by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in 2010. These revised guidelines removed the presumption that particular groups of Sri Lankans are eligible for refugee status, while noting that there was still cause for concern about human rights issues in relation to several groups.
Australia has taken these revised guidelines into account in assessing asylum applications from Sri Lankans.