As Australia’s new government launches tough measures to halt asylum seekers arriving on boats, some dirt-poor fishermen and their families half a world away in Sri Lanka seem undeterred.
Australia has struggled to manage the stream of asylum-seekers, including from Sri Lanka, arriving on rickety, overloaded fishing boats, with hundreds dying on the risky journey in recent years.
Australia’s Tony Abbott said he would act swiftly to implement a central plank of his election campaign to “stop the boats”, sending a strong signal to people smugglers, after being sworn in as prime minister recently.
But in the remote Sri Lankan hamlet of Udappuwa, where some have already made the perilous trip and others are planning to, the dream of starting a new and potentially prosperous life in Australia remains alive.
“The message received here is that even if you are held at an immigration detention centre, the food and clothing you get will be much better than what you have at home,” the village’s top civil servant, K. Wasagamoorthy, said.
Abbott said this week he would stand by a policy to send boat people to detention centres in the poor nation of Papua New Guinea, just north of Australia, effectively taking away any chance of their ever settling in Australia.
The previous government that claimed this policy had “broken the back” of the people-smuggling trade, with the number of boat arrivals to Australia halving since it was announced in July.
" Australia’s Tony Abbott said he would act swiftly to implement a central plank of his election campaign to “stop the boats”, sending a strong signal to people smugglers, after being sworn in as prime minister recently "
Local school headmaster V. Ramachandran said the new government’s measures meant that, for some, their plans to risk it all at sea were on hold.
“After the new government came to power, some (Sri Lankan asylum seekers already in Australia) called their relatives here to say they fear they may be sent back soon,” he said this week.“But many here want to get to Australia. They will now wait and see.”
Udappuwa, home to 10,500 mostly ethnic minority Tamils, relies on the seasonal fishing industry for income. Catches are dwindling and small boats sit idle for six months of the year.
With few prospects, some in the hamlet in the country’s northwest have fled for a new life abroad.
“About 500 people from our village have gone to Australia (illegally) in the past year or so,” Ramachandran said.
“Many more are trying to make the journey,” he added.
He speculated that about 10 have returned home after their claims to Australian immigration authorities for asylum were rejected. Nationwide, some 1,300 Sri Lankans have been sent back since August last year, the Australian High Commission (embassy) in Colombo said.
Most Sri Lankans who seek asylum in Australia claim they are being persecuted at home because of their involvement with Tamil Tiger rebels and their failed armed struggle for a separate state.
However, government officials dismiss the claims as unfounded and describe all illegal migrants as economic refugees.
Privately, residents in Udappuwa admit they are trying to go abroad to make a better living. However, some former Tamil rebels who escaped a military crackdown are known to have successfully secured asylum abroad.
“The motivation to go is the lifestyle of those who made it good abroad,” Ramachandran said. “They have built proper houses, and bought vehicles for their parents and other family members left behind.”
Sri Lankan police say they are doing their part to halt the departures, with official records showing some 300 people nationwide, including smugglers and their passengers, arrested since July.
The 300, including 56 women and 93 children, were arrested after the Sri Lankan Navy detected three trawlers suspected of preparing to undertake the dangerous journey.
“They (passengers) know about the (Papua New Guinea) plan, but are willing to chance it. They believe Australia will admit them at some point in the future,” a police officer involved in people-smuggling investigations told AFP.
Five navy personnel, including a senior officer, have also been arrested since August, allegedly for helping to organise the illegal rides on trawlers.
Udappuwa fisherman Muthulingam Armugasamy is one who made the journey. He boarded a trawler late last year, after he says he paid 800,000 rupees ($6,100) to smugglers.
Along with 44 others, he spent 18 days crossing the Indian Ocean, bound for the Cocos Islands, an Australian outpost. He arrived safely but his claim for asylum dragged on for months and he was eventually encouraged by authorities to head home.
“In July, they told me they would throw me in jail unless I agreed to go back,” Armugasamy told AFP from inside his hut, made of woven palm leaves. Although Armugasamy did not fulfil his dream of resettling in Australia, he still hopes the journey was worth it. The 52-year-old is waiting for a cash handout from the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), offered as a incentive to drop his asylum claim.
An IOM official in Colombo said the scheme, funded by the previous Australian government, has supported 160 Sri Lankans who have returned voluntarily since last September.
Armugasamy said he will spend the anticipated USD 3,300 on a three-wheeled taxi, which he hoped would provide much-needed income to support his wife, three daughters and son.
Courtesy Khaleej Times