Big business keeps boat people afloat

Youth who see no hope in the horizon in spite of the end of the war make risky journey to Australia, as human smuggling vultures eye their prey

Wasanthini Fernando*, from Udappuwa, off Puttalam closely monitors radio and television news. She is keen to find out whether there’s any news about a multi-day trawler which left 10 days back carrying her husband along with several others to Australia.“My husband paid nearly Rs. One million to an agent. Most of the dealings are kept a secret so that the information does not leak out prior to their departure which could lead to their detection either on land or in mid sea,” she said.

The boats lie anchored but with over a 1,000 men leaving the village illegally, there are only a few men left to go to sea

“Even among the families these matters are not discussed. They do not even disclose the destination they are heading to, but I am aware that most who have left this village have gone to Australia,” she said.

“I am awaiting information from my husband. He may call me at any moment to say that he has arrived safely,” she added.
He is just one among several hundreds who have left the village during the recent weeks by boat to Australia.
There are about 4000, mostly fisher families in Udappuwa that consists of two Grama Sevaka areas.

The declining fishing industry has prompted many to resort to risk the journey by boat to Australia. The Sunday Times learns that many agents are involved in the business of scouting around for such people. “The Agents tell the youth that in less than two weeks they can reach the destination and the journey is not too risky as the weather conditions are good,” another resident who did not want to be named said.

He said many of the youth who had left by boat were from the eastern coast and not from the north western coast although Udappuwa is in the north western coast.He estimates that over 1,000 have left the village in recent months claiming they were heading to Australia, but was not sure how many have reached the destination.

Investigations by the Sunday Times revealed that during the past three months there has been a sudden step up in the hunt by agents for those interested in making the risky as well as illegal entry into Ausatralia.

Only mother and daughter left: With many men leaving the village this is a familiar sight in many Udappuwa households

“There are various packages on offer—including upfront payments ranging between Rs. 800,000 to one million, while others pay Rs. 300,000 promising to pay the rest later,” a resident who had been approached by an agent said.
The villagers say the illegal migration pattern is similar to that was seen in the 1980s when people on the coastal belt of Negombo, Wennappuwa, Marawila, Chilaw and Mahawewa used day boats to get to Italy and other western destinations. The difference today was not many were going to Italy.

About 90 per cent from Udappuwa have illegally migrated to Australia and many of them are Tamils.
Figures provided by the Australian High Commission in Colombo to the Sunday Times confirmed the sudden surge in the number of Sri Lankans entering by boat to their country.

The High Commission said this year, upto date there have been 1346 Sri Lankans who arrived by boat while last year there were only 211 that arrived illegally from Sri Lanka. In 2010, the figure was 536 and in 2009, it was 736.
“The overwhelming majority of Sri Lankans claim to be Tamils, however there is a small number who claim to be Sinhalese,” the High Commission said.

“All claims for protection are assessed individually on their merits and where people engage Australia’s protection obligations, that protection is provided. If people are found not to engage Australia’s protection obligations, arrangements are made to send them home,” the High Commission explained.

On Friday (July 13) there were more detections made off Trincomalee. At least 41 persons including five women and five children were detected by the Navy, while earlier on Tuesday 82 people were detected in two boats off Trincomalee.

They were believed to be on their way to Australia, when they were detected 35 nautical miles off the south east coast of Trincomalee by the Sri Lanka Navy and handed over to the CID for further inquiry.

Four persons who were said to be behind mass scale human trafficking were among those handed over to the CID, according to Navy sources.
Two Dvoras of the Sri Lanka Navy Eastern Naval Command have been deployed off the coast of Trincomalee to apprehend those attempting to flee.

The most recent detection: One of the two boatload of people apprehended by the Navy on Friday. Pic by Amadoru Amarajeewa

Some the of those arrested are said to be residents of Sampoor and Trincomalee. Two more Tamils were taken into custody on Wednesday night while they were waiting to flee to Australia from Sambaltheivu, a coastal village in Trincomalee, Navy sources said.
They were to be produced in court. But now have been handed over to the CID for further inquiry, sources added.On the previous Friday (July 6) some 41 more were arrested off Vakarai when they were about to board a fishing vessel.

Vaharai’s Officer In Charge IP T.Jayaseelan told the Sunday Times that the would-be illegal immigrants were from Mullaitivu, Killinochchi and Trincomalee. They were remanded by the Valachchenai Magistrate till July 20
Each of them deposited Rs. 300,000 to bank account numbers provided by human traffickers in Colombo and other areas.Inquiries have revealed that many of these boat people are finding life difficult in spite of the end of the war. Financial burdens, lack of education, health facilities and shelter have forced them to take a journey risking their lives.

Meanwhile International Organization for Migration (IOM)’s administrative officer Loprete Giuseppe said an awareness campaign will be launched about the dangers of illegal immigration.

“We have not been informed by the state or the respective bodies about the current trend in human smuggling.
Most of the people have been deceived by smugglers who give false promises that they will lead a better life once they reach Australia and the surrounding islands,” he said adding that in the recent past on many occasions people who have tried to leave the country through improper channels have ended up in jail or been abandoned in unknown locations.
*Name changed to prevent identification

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