Thirty-nine-year-old Warnakulasuriyage Vencess, from Kudapaduwa, Negombo, undertook a 22 day gruelling voyage on a wooden boat with 41 others in mid August this year. Their destination, Christmas Island, in Australian territorial waters; their goal; asylum in Australia.
Vencess, a father of three and his group reached Christmas Island but was detained for nearly six weeks. He eventually decided to return to Sri Lanka as the prospect of obtaining asylum was fading.
He was deported to Sri Lanka along with two others on October 9.
Vencess speaking to the Sunday Times at his residence this week, said, their journey started from Kudapaduwa, a place that has gained notoriety for human smuggling-- after months of planning. Each of them were told the trip would cost Rs. 300,000, but were provided with the opportunity of paying in instalments starting with a minimum of Rs. 50,000.
“We were told to be ready to take off at any given time after midnight, any day. We were told to stay in an area where we could reach the boat within half an hour of being notified,” Vencess said.
“Accordingly, on the day we set sail, we left the Negombo coast around 2 a.m. posing off as fishermen. We were told in the event of detection, not to divulge the country of origin,” he said.
“Our group included people from various parts of the country including from the north,” he added.
He said their boat was spotted by the Navy off Kirinde, but they passed through posing off as fishermen.
“We survived on biscuits, dry foods and vitamins. At times we used to catch fish which we boiled and ate. We used the minimal amount of water to conserve drinking water. It was a difficult journey due to the rough seas,” he said.
“At one point we were told we were passing Indonesia. We could see land at a distance. When we reached closer to Christmas Island we were told to get into the water which was waist high. We were told to wade towards land. When we reached the island the coastal guards took us,” he said.
He said they were then detained at a centre where there were other inmates as well.
“We were provided with food, clothing and medicine. We were questioned on the reasons for seeking asylum. We had been told by those who took us that we should say we were political victims. However, when they questioned me they realized that I was not a political victim and that I was from an area where there were no such problems,” he said.
After about six weeks, Vencess and two others decided to come back to Sri Lanka. “As we decided to return on a voluntary basis we did not have a problem. They gave US dollars 50 each and sent us back. On arrival at Katunayake airport, we were questioned by the CID and two of us were released while one was detained,” he said.
Vencess said he was however not aware as to what had happened to the others on the boat, who included Tamils who were claiming asylum on grounds of harassment .
Vencess is just one among many who are smuggled out by various operators for a fee on the claim of seeking political asylum, in countries including Australia and Italy.
Anton Warnakulasuriya, who is currently facing charges for trying to smuggle out people illegally told the Sunday Times he was arrested while he was organizing a boat trip to Australia for about 70 people from Negombo.
“I bought a fishing trawler for Rs. One million and assured the owner that I would pay the balance later. But I was arrested when the people were getting in from a small boat into the trawler. I was not aware of the high risk of smuggling people by boat. I was optimistic as I had found about 70 people,” he said.Meanwhile, treasurer of the Joint Federation of the Co-operative Fishing Society in Kudapaduwa told the Sunday Times that he was campaigning against people- smuggling.
“If Australian authorities co-ordinate with the fishermen in this part, I am sure all these illegal boat trips could be prevented,” he said.
‘No boat can be put out to sea, without permission from our society. Every Monday we have a meeting with our branch members. We discuss the problems faced by them and the issue of illegal smuggling of people is also discussed,” he said. He said, they were also working closely with the churches in the area and often at Sunday Mass the dangers of human smuggling is discussed.
While emphasizing the need for more assistance from organizations like the International Organisation of Migration (IOM), to put a stop to human smuggling, he said it was a disgrace to the people in the area that such trips originated from there.
The Parish Priest of St. Sebastian’s Church, Rev. Fr Harrington Silva said IOM officials had met with them last week and they wanted to carry out an awareness programme about the risks in illegally leaving the country by sea.
“We need to uplift the living standards of these people so that they won’t feel the need to leave the country, taking such high risks,” he said.