Risking blue waters for greener pastures

Is it poverty alone that’s prompting boatloads of youth to take that risky journey to Australia as an illegal immigrant? Damith Wickremasekara and
Aanya Wipulasena go to Udappuwa in Chilaw, a place from where many
have succeeded or failed, to find the answers

All of them had different reasons, but their goal and destination were the same – to lead a comfortable life in Australia.
Rajendra Thayabaran, 45 from the Andimuni village in Udappuwa was finding it difficult to make ends meet.“My brother-in-law had earlier worked in Dubai and after his return was involved in fishing. It was hard to earn a living from that. He therefore decided to find his way to Australia,” 32-year-old Raymond Christopher, Thayabaran’s brother-in-law said.

Raymond Christopher

S. Ranjan

Chillaw Officer in Charge Manoj Ranagala

“We have to pay for everything here, even for firewood and drinking water. There are no resources in the area and therefore our families find it difficult to make a living,” he lamented, adding that Thayabaran could not save any money though he worked in Dubai and since he couldn’t fulfil his one dream of building his own house he decided to join the others to Australia.

Christopher went on to say that they had got news that Thayabaran had reached Christmas island. “The agents are now worrying us to pay the Rs. one million that had been promised. We do not have that kind of money and we don’t know when my brother-in-law will be able to send money.
Gayan Fernando, 24, was another villager from who attempted to get to Australia illegally but failed.

“I travelled to Maldives and tried to find employment there as a mechanic, but didn’t succeed. When I returned I tried to work as a mechanic to make a living but that failed too. I therefore decided to go to Australia. He was lucky not to get arrested as some 40 others who were due to travel with him were rounded up in Batticaloa two weeks ago, before they boarded the vessel.

“I was lucky to escape. I was alerted by one of them who was arrested. I paid Rs. 400,000 to the agent. He promised to send me. The others who tried to leave with me are still in custody,” he told the Sunday Times.

22-year-old Wasanthan Kumaran was one among a group of 48, making the hazardous voyage to Australia (on July 10 in a ramshackled boat when the engine failed and after two days at sea a navy vessel intercepted them and they were brought ashore.
“We were lucky that we were found by the navy. If not we would have drifted away and got into a lot of trouble,” Kumaran told the Sunday Times after he was released from custody this week.

Many of them who wanted to make the trip to Australia were told to pay Rs. 300,000 as a deposit with an assurance that the rest would be paid once they reached the destination. There were others who promised to pay the full amount later. Sinniah Jeewan, just 22-year-old believed that he could raise the living standards of his family by migrating to Australia. He decided to take the risky journey, but ended up in custody leaving his family in a worse situation.His sister Sinniah Padmapriya has not succeeding in getting two public servants to sign his bail bond. They are demanding Rs. 70,000 to come forward to secure his release.

“Since our father died it has been hard for our family. There are five members in the family so we decided that it was better to send our brother to another country for a job. He tried to leave from Trincomalee, but was arrested in mid sea and is currently in CID custody,” Padmapriya told the Sunday Times.

“We know that it is a dangerous trip. But since he had no other option he opted to take the risky journey,” she added.
This month alone seven boats with over 400 people have been intercepted by the Navy. More than 150 were detected by the Police.
Investigations by the Sunday Times revealed that these detections are only just the tip of the iceberg (a speck on a larger canvas). A larger number of boats have gone undetected in what is clearly a million dollar or a billion rupee human smuggling racket that has spread its tentacles even to law enforcement agencies.

A cross section of those who were approached by agents operating in the Udappuwa area told the Sunday Times that in the past few months the campaign to net in more people to travel illegally to Australia has been intensified.
“There are as many as 25 agents operating in the area. They tell the youth that more than 1,000 from the area have already reached Australia safely by boat and that they too can get there within three weeks,” a youth of the village said.
He said that there were instances where the agents have agreed to let people travel without an initial payment, but keeping some kind of security in the form of land or gold jewellery.


Sometimes however poverty, unemployment and insufficient income are not the only reasons for taking a risky boat journey to Australia.

Illicit immigration to Australia, appears to be a trend similar to what occurred several years back when many from the north western coastal belt including Negombo and Chilaw migrated to Italy illicitly. The trend continued for several years and many who succeeded were able to take their relatives to Italy too.

It is not only agents who entice young men to travel to Australia. In some cases it has been the neighbours who have helped a person to migrate.  The human-trafficking racket that has turned into a big money-spinner for some agents has sometimes turned sour as is the case of S. Ranjan, 27 from Udappuwa.

“An agent told me to find 10 people and if I did so that I could go to Australia free of charge. I found 15 from this area. They take Rs. one million per person. They had to pay Rs. 300, 000 as advance and the rest after they reached Christmas Island,” he said.
“There were other agents from the area who brought more people. We rounded up about 45. They were taken in four vans to Trincomalee. I had collected Rs. 7.5 million and was taking the money to pay the agent in Udappuwa when two persons claiming to be from the CID snatched the money from me at gunpoint,” he said.

“The people from whom I collected the money are now demanding that I return the money. I have no way of doing so. They have threatened to kill me and have even attacked my mother,” he said.Chilaw Officer in Charge Manoj Ranagala told the Sunday Times that he believes that there are organised groups who are trying to discredit the country by trying to lure youth away from our shores.

“In recent months we have found that most of the would be illicit-immigrants are kept in the vans, instead of in hotels as the chances of getting detected in a hotel is high,” he said.

Adding a new twist to the saga, he said some who claim to be agents collect the money from the would be immigrants promising to send them to Australia and later inform the police or the navy leading to their arrest, in addition to losing their money, he said.However, some claimed that the Navy was involved in helping the illegal-migrants to leave the country – a claim strongly denied by Navy Spokesman Commodore Kosala Warnakulasuriya.

Sinniah Padmapriya. Pix by Indika Handuwala

“We were travelling in a trawler for three days when we were detected midsea by the Navy. We were held there for one and a half days. The agent accompanying us said the Navy was demanding Rs four million to allow us to proceed. We were 40 in the vessel. Since we could not pay the money we were brought back to the shore and handed over to the CID,” one of them who returned said.

“The allegations that the navy takes money to escort the boats with illegal immigrants are not correct. In fact we have made seven detections – mostly off the eastern coast this month,” the Navy spokesman contered.“Our understanding is that Tamils who have reached Australia have been entertained while the Sinhalese are turned back to the country,” he said.

Commodore Warnakulasuriya said during the conflict there were less num,bers leaving to Australia as the Navy was vigilant about LTTE activities. But with the end of the war and relaxation of security the numbers have increased.
The Australian High Commission here confirmed that there has been a dramatic increase in the number of Sri Lankans reaching their country illegally.

In the first six months of this year 1346 Sri Lankans reached Australia by boat, in contrast to 211 persons last year. In 2010 the figure was 536 and in 2009 -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,” he High Commission said.

The latest boatload of 25 would-be illegal immigrants were detected close to Christmas Island in Australia on Thursday.

Would-be illicit immigrants in remand

From Sinniah Gurunathan our Trinco Corr.

Sixty two men, women and children who were apprehended by the Sri Lanka Navy, while attempting to flee to Australia in a trawler were remanded till July 27 by the Kuchchaveli Magistrate.Since they were apprehended off the seas of Kuchchaveli, the Sri Lanka Navy handed them over to the Kuchchaveli Police who produced them at the Kuchchaveli circuit court on Wednesday, July 18.

Meanwhile, the Trincomalee Magistrate ordered remand for six persons, while the other 78 were enlarged on surety bail of Rs. 100,000 each, when the Trincomalee Harbour Police produced 84 persons at the Trincomalee Magistrate’s Court on Monday, on a report of being apprehended by the Sri Lanka Navy, when they too were attempting to flee to Australia in a trawler.
Those granted bail were ordered to report every Sunday to the Trincomalee Harbour Police.


(Additional reporting by Hiran Priyankara Jayasinghe)

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