Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Sri Lanka: Detained refugees say they will take the chance again

Small groups of migrants are crammed into 46-foot fibreglass boats such as these vessels, while bigger trawlers are used to ferry larger numbers

A grim boat journey partly spent in an airless hold, surviving a storm and running afoul of Australian security officers were still not enough to dim the hopes of some would-be Sri Lankan migrants, they say.

“We ran out of fuel on the high seas,” said Ranjit P, 25, declining to give his real name for fear of being prosecuted in Sri Lanka. “But some Indonesian fishermen helped us by giving us cans of diesel and we were able to carry on our journey. They even gave us food and water because we had finished our supplies,” he told IRIN.

Still, the tyre shop employee in this small western coastal village - who turned down a cleaner’s job in Dubai to pursue a dream life in New Zealand - said if an opportunity arose for another trip, he would take it.

Fellow traveller Krishantha D, agreed: “I’m definitely going to try again, even if it is to another country.” The hotel worker and father of two said he could barely make a living with the 15,000 rupees (US$131) he earned a month.

Ranjit and Krishantha were among some 50 men from northwestern Puttalam district who boarded a 14m fibreglass boat one night in February. They each paid $1,500 to people smugglers as a partial payment for a one-way ride to New Zealand.

They were expected to pay US$2,000 more once they landed and found employment.

Instead, after 35 days, their boat ran aground off the unfamiliar northern Australian coast near Horn Island, and they were picked up by border security officials. The closest they got to their destination was the detention centre at Australia’s Christmas Island, where they congregated with 800 other Sri Lankans who arrived that month. They left voluntarily and received $1,200 from the Australian government upon their return.

Cooperation on people smugglers

In recent weeks, a stand-off in Indonesia involving 75 Sri Lankans on board an Australian customs ship and the capsizing of a boat ferrying illegal migrants off northwest Australia, have focused attention on the flow of Sri Lankan migrants and asylum seekers.

Although many Sri Lankans go abroad through skilled migration programmes, the option is closed for the poor.

“Even if we want to go legally, we can’t,” said Prasanna K, 30, a mason who was also on the ill-fated trip to New Zealand. “We just don’t have the bank balance that is required if we want to apply legally.”

Between 2003 and 2008, some 16,291 Sri Lankans were deported from other countries, with an average of some 2,715 returnees a year, according to the International Migration Outlook – Sri Lanka 2008 report, released in October by the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

The majority were sent back from Malaysia, Japan, Singapore, South Korea, Hong Kong and the UK, it notes.

“There has been a continuous increase in the number of refugees and asylum-seekers from Sri Lanka due to the conflict in the northern and eastern parts of the country,” stated the report.

Australia is one destination of choice for migrants and asylum seekers, and on 9 November, it signed a memorandum of understanding with Sri Lanka on legal cooperation against people smuggling.
Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse told visiting Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith last week that his government would help the Australians “investigate, track down and bring to justice the masterminds involved in migrant smuggling”, a statement from the president’s office said.

“The focus of our effort with Sri Lanka is on the criminal syndicates that organize the people-smuggling trade,” Australia’s envoy to Sri Lanka, Kathy Klugman, told IRIN.

“Police-to-police co-operation has been stepped up in recent months and this will include successful prosecution of the organizers of the people-smuggling business,” she said.

Numbers up

While most of the economic migrants are from the majority Sinhalese community, many minority Tamils have made the boat trip to seek political asylum, said Tamil politician Dharmalingam Sithadthan.

"Most Tamils want to leave the country because they do not feel safe here,” said Sithadthan, referring to the 26-year civil war between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and government forces, during which Tamils say they were treated with suspicion and subject to harassment.

A report released in October by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) [] said there was a 12 percent increase in the number of asylum applications from Sri Lanka in the first half of 2009 to all industrialized countries compared with the same period a year before, with a 68 percent increase lodged in Australia, New Zealand, Japan and South Korea.

Disclaimer:This material comes to you via IRIN, the humanitarian news and analysis service of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations or its Member States.
Photo: Copyright IRIN

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