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Sri Lanka’s boat people: Dying to strike it rich

[AFP, Wednesday, 11 November 2009 09:24 No Comment]

For 50 young Sri Lankans who had paid up to 1,500 dollars each for the chance of a new life, a five-week voyage in the hold of a fishing boat ended in an Australian camp for illegal migrants.

Their families had sold property and whatever other assets they had to fund the journey which was to have taken the men to New Zealand but nearly cost them their lives after their boat ran aground at Horn Island off the northern tip of Queensland.

After being rescued, they were held for five months at Australia’s main immigrant clearing centre on Christmas Island.

Among them were two brothers, Buddhi and Kumar, who were sent back to Sri Lanka in August with the horror of their 35 days on the open seas still very fresh in their minds.

"I thought we would die when we ran out of food and water, but we got help from Indonesian fishermen," Kumar, a 25-year-old mechanic, told AFP. "But if I get a chance, I’d still like to try again."

The brothers, who declined to give their full names, had each made a down payment of 1,500 dollars for the journey and were expected to pay another 2,000 dollars each on arrival in New Zealand.

They started out in February from Mariwala on the western coast.

Sri Lanka has become the main source of illegal immigrants to Australia, ahead of Iraq and Afghanistan, and the Australian police set up a liaison post in Colombo a few months ago to help address the problem.

Buddhi and Kumar were luckier than some.

A boat carrying 39 people believed to be Sri Lankan migrants sank earlier this month in rough seas off Australia’s northwest coast. A passing tanker managed to pick up 27 survivors, but the 12 others were feared to have died.

"The people smugglers are prepared to put people at awful risk in order to profit from their suffering," said Australia’s High Commissioner in Colombo, Kathy Klugman.

The Sri Lankan navy and harbour police keep a special lookout for trawlers with an unusually large "crew", or those taking on large quantities of supplies while in dock.

But the smugglers always move quickly to adapt their methods.

Another illegal immigrant recently sent back from Australia told AFP that the trawler he was in had anchored out at sea, and that he and others had been ferried to it on small boats.

"We did not know how many people were joining the trawler. We knew the numbers only four days after we cleared Sri Lankan waters and were allowed to come out of the hold," said the man, who requested anonymity.

A local source familiar with the operation said some trawlers took on their illegal human cargo in waters off the northwestern coast, known for smuggling operations between Sri Lanka and India.

Those who can afford it fly to Singapore, where Sri Lankans can receive visas on arrival, and then cross into Malaysia or Thailand where they board boats for their eventual destination.

The majority of those trying to leave Sri Lanka are from the island’s majority Sinhalese community who are mainly seen as economic migrants with a weaker case for political asylum than ethnic minority Tamils.

The authorities suspect that former members of the defeated Tamil Tiger separatist group may also be trying to leave the country.

A freighter carrying Sri Lankan Tamils was seized by Canadian authorities last month and Canadian officials said several among them were believed to have links with the Tigers.

Tamils wanting to leave Sri Lanka usually end up applying for asylum in Western capitals on the grounds of persecution at home.

Those who fail and are sent home often resort to paying up to 40,000 dollars to people smugglers to get them back overseas — mainly through Southeast Asian networks.

Seven years ago, Sri Lanka emerged as a regional hub for illegal migrants after the government extended a visas-on-arrival policy to South Asian nationals.

Thousands of men from Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan came to Sri Lanka looking for fishing trawlers that offered illegal access to Europe and Australia for 1,500 to 3,000 dollars a head.

But the smuggling operations dropped off sharply when the Sri Lankan navy stepped up its coastal surveillance after government forces resumed fighting with Tamil rebels from 2006.

Saman Nishantha was just 18 when he boarded an overcrowded boat heading to Italy in 2003, but was caught by the Sri Lankan navy and jailed for six months. He was also fined 50,000 rupees (500 dollars).

"There were 269 of us onboard and the boat was just not able to travel. We stopped in Indian waters for two days for our skipper to arrange another boat, but we were caught by the navy," Nishantha said at his home in Marawila.

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