By Wasantha Ramanayake   Sri Lankans experiencing joblessness and hunger are taking risky decisions and paying human smugglers in a desperate bid to build better lives in another country. Among them was Mr Anil (not his real name), a fisherman from Chilaw in his 40s. A father of three, he sought a new life in Australia. [...]


Hundreds risk illegal sea journey for a better life


By Wasantha Ramanayake  

Sri Lankans experiencing joblessness and hunger are taking risky decisions and paying human smugglers in a desperate bid to build better lives in another country.

Among them was Mr Anil (not his real name), a fisherman from Chilaw in his 40s. A father of three, he sought a new life in Australia. He and his wife decided to take a risk and go to Australia, illegally, along with their three children, in a fishing trawler.

He had been jobless because of the fuel scarcity for fishing vessels.

He was among 814 people arrested by the Sri Lanka Navy when they had attempted to illegally emigrate to destinations such Australia and India, so far, this year.

“It was a life and death decision. We were risking not only our lives, but those of our beloved children. What else could we have done, because schools are closed and children are wasting their lives,” said Mr Anil as he tried to explain the circumstances that led to his decision. “There’s no diesel or kerosene for fishing boats. We have no income. We could not afford higher prices for fuel. Our lives have been devastated.”

He, along with his wife and three children, was among a group of 55 Sri Lankans arrested by the navy on board a multi-day fishing trawler near Trincomalee off the Eastern coast on their voyage to seek asylum in Australia on May 20.

“There were seven women and four children. Only 10 of us were Sinhalese and the rest were Tamils,” he said.

They were mostly fishermen. There were some small-scale shop owners.

They had paid fees ranging from Rs. 700,000 to Rs. 1.5 million to smugglers for the voyage, he said, adding that people had sold property, borrowed money, or pawned their jewellery.

“Now we have lost everything. We have fallen from the frying pan into the fire. We have no money, and we are heavily indebted,” he said, noting that court cases would drag on for months.

“I have to spend more than 25,000 rupees for five of us for the court case in Trincomalee including the fee for the lawyer, for travel to Trincomalee from Negombo plus accommodation in Trinco. The court case could be torture for us, physically, mentally, and financially.’’

If convicted, they face a two-year rigorous imprisonment and a fine.

A Sri Lankan woman, 41, who had fled with eight members of her family to Rameswaram, India, said that her husband could not find a job and could not afford the soaring food prices in Sri Lanka. The family needed Rs. 500 a day for rice and few vegetables alone and could not afford to buy any other food for their children, according to media reports in May.

The woman said the deteriorating healthcare and dearth of food and high prices made them want to flee to India for the sake of their children. She said that her son was suffering from thalassemia and he needed nutritious food.

She was worried that they would be caught and sent back to Sri Lanka by the Sri Lankan Navy and was also equally concerned about their plight in a Sri Lankan rehabilitation camp, Mandapam in Rameswaram.

Another 26-year-old Sri Lankan, a painter who had come to India with his wife in March, shared a similar experience.

“We could not do anything in Sri Lanka because of the economic crisis. If I had known that we would be held in a refugee camp like this, I would not have come at all,” he had told Germany’s DW.

He had wanted to find some work there to provide for his family. “That is all we ask for.”

According to DW there were 58,843 Sri Lankan Tamils living in 108 refugee camps in Tamil Nadu while 34,135 refugees were living outside the camps.

According to the navy, 113 people had been arrested while attempting to flee to India in small boats.

The latest episode was on August 1, as a group of 47 was arrested in Wennappuwa on suspicion of attempting to illegally emigrate to a foreign country on the night of July 31.

There were 37 males, six females and four teenagers.

They were residents of Jaffna, Vavuniya, Trincomalee, Kalmunai, Batticaloa, Puttalam, Chilaw, Marawila, Mahawewa, Mundalama, and Wellawatta.

They were among 210 people arrested on land before they were taken to fishing trawlers by smugglers, according to navy media coordinator Capt Indika de Silva. He said they had paid smugglers to take them to Canada.

The media reported that the Australian government had repatriated two groups of Sri Lankans who had gone to Australia in fishing trawlers.

They would be arrested on arrival and would be prosecuted. These returnees are also disqualified from applying for Australian visas later.

46 Lankan illegal immigrants brought back home in Australian Border Force ship

An Australian Border Force Cutter (ABFC), carrying 46 illegal immigrants from Sri Lanka, reached the Colombo port on Friday.

The illegal immigrants were arrested by the Australian Border Force on July 21, while they were attempting to migrate to Australia by sea.

The group left for Australia from the eastern coastal town of Valaichchenai on July 6 in a multiday fishing trawler. They were residents of Valaichchenai, Batticaloa, Pasikuda, Ampara, Bibila and Muthur. They were handed over to immigration officials for legal action.

ABFC arrives with 46 Lankans on board

Addressing the media, Australian Border Force Regional Director for South Asia Commander Chris Waters said that since May last year, the Australian authorities had sent back 183 Sri Lankans including the latest group. There was no change in the border policy with regard to illegal migrants under the newly elected Labor government, he said.

Operation Sovereign Borders is the Australian Government’s military-led border security initiative set up in 2013 to stop the boats, prevent people from risking their lives at sea, and preserve the integrity of Australia’s migration programme, explains a fact sheet of the Australian High Commission in Colombo.

The Australian Border Force (ABF), the law enforcement agency responsible for border control, in its monthly Operation Sovereign Borders updates covering June 01 to 30 stated that 125 illegal Sri Lankan migrants and crew were safely returned to Sri Lanka. They were on board four fishing boats which were intercepted by the ABF in Australian waters. According to the refugee council of Australia, the two governments have agreed to safely return Sri Lankan asylum seekers back to Sri Lanka.

Australian media reported that shadow home affairs minister Karen Andrews was critical of new labour government’s “mixed massaging of border policies.”

Following the publishing of the report, she told the media that some of the boats had carried children risking their lives and called on the Labor government to protect lives under the Temporary Protection Visas. More than 50,000 illegal migrants had arrived on 820 boats with 1200 deaths at sea, during the period the last Labor government was in power, she said.

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