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Sri Lanka migrants' voyage of desperation

Lack of employment opportunities in island nation forces many to flee illegally by boat in search for better life.

Last updated: 24 Jul 2014 16:18
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Last year nearly 2,000 asylum seekers were apprehended upon arrival in Australia [Reuters]

Colombo, Sri Lanka - Seated in a tea shop on a beach in Sri Lanka's western coastal town of Negombo, Viganamoothy looks around nervously before checking his phone. He has made several calls in a space of fifteen minutes. He finally looks up and apologises: "I am sorry but my job is no more than a telephone operator."

Viganamoothy, a former middleman who was arrested for people smuggling in 2011, was given two options, either he should become a police informant and help crack down on human smuggling rings, or face a jail sentence of up to 10 years.

"The police persuaded me to be an informant - all I need to do is the same job I was doing prior to being arrested," he told Al Jazeera.

The number of asylum seekers fleeing the South Asian nation has been growing since 2009 when the nearly three decades of civil war between the government forces and the Tamil rebels ended.

The island nation's economy has been growing in recent years, but the lack of employment opportunities and a desperate economic situation has forced many to undertake the perilous boat journey.

I was forced to flee Sri Lanka as I had no work and little opportunity to support myself or my family. I tried continually to secure a visa to another country and find work, but could not.

Sanjeev, asylum seeker

On July 7, a boat containing 41 Sri Lankan asylum seekers was handed over to Sri Lanka by Australian authorities. A mystery still surrounds the fate of a second asylum seeker boat with 153 people on board which was intercepted by the Australian navy.

Australia's Minister of Immigration Scott Morrison, who visited Sri Lanka earlier this month, refused to comment to media on the second boat, simply stating that the matter was before the court.

Sanjeev, a Tamil, was among the 41 asylum seekers.

"I was forced to flee Sri Lanka as I had no work and little opportunity to support myself or my family. I tried continually to secure a visa to another country and find work, but could not," he said.

Through contacts, Sanjeev was introduced to a man who said he could help him go to New Zealand on a boat. He was asked to pay Rs 250,000 ($1,919) up front and another Rs 200,000 ($1,535) after finding work.

He took the plunge with hopes of a fresh life.

"We were kept out at sea for several days and were given stale food. They refused to give us any answers as to where we would be going. Finally, one of the crew members told us that we were to be handed over to the Sri Lankan navy and returned home," he said.

He has since been released on bail, but says the police keep a close watch on him and his movements are restricted.

"Financially, I am in a worse off situation than before. I sold most of my belongings and borrowed from people to make the journey. I was forced to ask a friend to post bail for me," he told Al Jazeera.

Hopes of new life

Last year nearly 2,000 asylum seekers were apprehended upon arrival in Australia, while from 2009 to 2011 about 1,529 were reportedly detained by the Australian authorities.

This year, however, only two boats have reached Australian waters, both of which were intercepted by the Australian navy.

While cooperation between the Australian and Sri Lankan governments has brought a significant crackdown on the number of boat people, the recent interception of two asylum seeker boats illustrates the fact that the issue has not been resolved completely.

It was only after I boarded the ship that I knew I had made a mistake, the crew immediately took our money and forced us below deck. Nearly 100 of us, including children, where locked up near the engines. The fumes made us sick. The crew members beat us.

Mahesh Vagdevi, asylum seeker

Australia has come under heavy scrutiny by several international organisations, including Amnesty International, for its handling of boat migrants.

Mahesh Vagdevi, who attempted to flee to Australia by boat in 2011, had a harrowing experience.

He raised Rs 150,000 ($1,100) by selling his personal belongings and borrowing from relatives for the boat journey to Australia.

Vagdevi said, "It was only after I boarded the ship that I knew I had made a mistake, the crew immediately took our money and forced us below deck."

"Nearly 100 of us, including children, where locked up near the engines. The fumes made us sick. The crew members beat us."

Vagdevi suffered several broken ribs from the beatings. It was several weeks later that their boat was intercepted by the Indonesian navy.

Upon his return to Sri Lanka, Vagdevi and others was immediately arrested and sent before the courts. The judge refused to grant them bail and instead he and several others were transferred to a hospital prison.

Securing his release from prison was a further financial burden on Vagdevi.

"My family raised the money and hired a lawyer for me. After several court visits the judge agreed to release me on a personal bail of Rs 20,000 ($153), however, my criminal record now makes it impossible to find any long term work. I am now working as a labourer at local construction sites," he said.

No better life

According to the Sri Lankan police, any person who is found to have left the country illegally will be charged under the Immigrants and Emigrants Act. If found guilty, they could be forced to pay a huge fine or even serve a jail sentence.

Nipuna Valluvan's sister fled to Australia last year, but ended up in a detention centre [Dinouk Colombage/Al Jazeera]

Sri Lankan cabinet spokesperson, Kehiliya Rambukwella, said that those who were seeking asylum in Australia were doing so purely for economic gains.

"Those who flee Sri Lanka do so due to economic hardship. All over the world people suffer from these problems, but it is not a reason for individuals to illegally leave their country."

He further said that the government had attempted to help dissuade people seeking economic asylum through job creation programmes around the country.

For those who are successful on their journey and reach Australia, life is no better.

Nipuna Valluvan's sister, Mathusha, fled to Australia last year, but ended up in a detention centre in Nauru, an island near Australia.

"A month after she left Sri Lanka on a boat, I received a phone call from her. She was crying and told me that she had been arrested and was now in prison, she pleaded with me to contact anyone who could help," Nipuna told Al Jazeera.


RELATED: Australian government: Pirates of the Indian Ocean


"I have since been to the Australian embassy every few weeks - they keep telling me that she has been transferred to a detention centre outside of Australia and that her application would be processed and only then would she know whether she will be returned."

Australia's Department of Immigration refused to comment on the individual's case, but said that all asylum seekers intercepted by their navy are transferred to a detention centre on Nauru. It is here that their applications are processed and if found eligible they are resettled in Australia.

When informed of this Nipuna broke down in tears, asking why her sister chose to make a fruitless journey.

"She will now never see her children again. Even if she is returned, the police will arrest her and she will go to jail here."

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Al Jazeera
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