Asylum seeker desperation: ‘Some die, some get sick’
PROMISES of a new, better life are luring asylum seekers into a dangerous journey to Australia by boat. But once they get to sea, things get creepy.
Yet the message is not reaching uneducated people in fishing villages and ports such as Chilaw, Udappuwa, Kalpitiya, Puttalam and Trincomalee, the main exit points on the country's north.
At least six vessels from Sri Lanka have been "interrupted" by Australia in recent months. The spike in movement has come during the 2019 election campaign when one group was apprehended off Christmas Island and flown home and the Sri Lanka Navy stopped or rescued two boats in its own waters.
All boats are doomed never to reach Australia yet "businessmen", as the Sri Lankan authorities call them, are still able to sell a dream to people who live outside of the news cycle.
Those who can raise enough to pay smugglers between $8200 to $12,300 for boat journeys to Australia have been conned on the false promise of a new life.
Sri Lankan authorities say that number of departing boats has dropped dramatically since the high point of 2012-13, when most were Tamils dealing with the aftermath of the civil war and the path was open under the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd governments.
They are still typically Tamils but also some Sinhalese, who represent the majority of Sri Lanka's population. They get preferential treatment and will pay as low as $2500 for passage.
The smugglers no longer play on their fears of persecution for their sales pitch. Now the war is over they are offering an escape from poverty.
The smugglers build confidence by visiting villages as salesmen offering distorted versions of the truth. Yes, there would be a short stay in detention once they reached the Cocos Islands or Christmas Island. But there would be food, lodging, medicine, clothes, entertainment and sports.
And they could earn money by working in the camps after which they'd go to the mainland as new Australian citizens.
"He told us to the detention camp is like a heaven," said one man recently sent back to Sri Lanka and now on bail.
The business model is all about a new world where Australia welcomes and wants them.
Women sell their gold. The men put the family's property on the market. And their wealth will be lost. That's guaranteed, because no one is getting to the Australian mainland.
Once they get to sea, things get creepy. The boat skippers threaten to turn back to Sri Lanka unless they are paid more.
Or even worse, said lawyer A.M. Kamarudeen, who has represented many who have been returned to Sri Lanka, the facilitators will sometimes "pass the message to the authorities" that the boat is departing.
The logic of this seems to be that the smugglers can get the boat back and use it again.
Sri Lanka Navy Lieutenant Commander Isuru Suriyabandara said in May they rescued 41 Australia-bound people whose boat had broken down at sea.
"Luckily, we met them and found them otherwise they would have been lost out at sea. Forty-one lives. It's not a small number.
"They are travelling 3000 to 4000 miles (4800 to 6400km). They are using small fishing vessels that cannot carry more than 10 to 15 people. We have seen that they carry 30 to 40 people on board, including infants."
They could run out of food and medicine and the officer said "even if they sent distress messages it would take days or sometimes weeks to find them. The navy's advice is don't believe these smugglers words. Don't believe them.
"The smugglers want to make money using the innocent people of this country. Showing them a wonderland, showing them a dreaming land. Which is fake."
In the port town of Chilaw, north of the capital Colombo, one recently returned asylum seeker who did not wish to be named because he is facing charges for leaving Sri Lanka explained his failed journey.
"It's a 16-day journey and people would get food once a day only," he said.
"It's basically a rice cup and a glass of water. And the people are not allowed to take any luggage with them. The risk of this journey is that the food and drinking water will run out after nine or 10 days. Because of that some die, some get sick."
He said most boats sailed with two skippers and four helpers. Now, the preferred destination is the Cocos (Keeling) Islands, a slightly shorter journey than Christmas Island and one that allows the smugglers to pay for less fuel.
Kovilage Rexi Madumali Silva has not seen her husband since 2012, when he captained an asylum vessel to Australia.
She said he remained in detention in WA and could probably take a voluntary repatriation to Sri Lanka but he's in a bind.
Back in 2012, he hired a vessel and never returned it. The owner says the vessel is worth $70,000 and wants his money back.
The husband can never pay the bill so, she says, he lives in a detention twilight.
He missed his mother's funeral and will miss the marriage of his daughter.
Asked what she would say to those who planned to go, her answer showed that despite her hardship, despite her husband's detention, the message was still not getting through.
"Please don't go," she said
But she added: "If you are going, please take your family too. The family here will suffer along, the husband there the wife and kids are here. So many problems they have to face so what I'm saying, if you are going take your whole family."