They call it ‘the voyage of the damned’. But thousands still want to try it

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Sri Lankan refugees in India are ready to do anything to escape their camps. Sai Manish finds out why

A new beginning Australia and Canada are the preferred destination of the Sri Lankan refugees
Photo: AFP

IN THE 1980s, Sri Lankan Tamils escaped to India from the ravages of a bitter war in the island nation. Now they are fleeing India for a better life in the West, undertaking a mindnumbing 3,000 nautical mile journey into a watery void so perilous that many call it the “voyage of the damned”.

“I was hoping to get on the last ship but the agent says the seas are rough and I can go only after the rains are over,” says Manikandan, 28, who stays with his father in one of the largest refugee camps at Mandapam in the coastal district of Ramanthapuram. “I have already paid Rs 20,000 and will pay another Rs 80,000 when I reach Australia. My brother and his wife are there on Christmas Island at the special camp and he will soon be given asylum. I came from Trincomalee four years ago but I can’t spend the rest of my life living on doles and doing odd jobs. I’m a graduate and I deserve better.”

Hundreds of youth like Manikandan are putting their life in jeopardy to make a precarious journey across the Indian and Pacific Oceans to Australia and Canada in search of a better life. Given the desperation to rebuild lives, many nefarious agents, some with the backing of Tamil Nadu’s fringe political groups, are luring gullible refugees with the promise of paradise across the seas.

TEHELKA spoke to a Chennai-based agent and a few refugees who have already paid a part of the Rs 1.5 lakh fee to be shipped illegally. The agents, most of whom are Sri Lankan nationals settled in India as refugees, have easy access to the 73,000 refugees living in 115 camps.

The agents say that they always impose some conditions before the journey. “Rule No. 1 is that there should be no old men and women on board the ship. No. 2 is that no transit to Australia and Canada is made without infants on board. No. 3 is that if someone dies on board, his/her body should be promptly disposed of at sea. No. 4 is when they reach the destination, they should maintain that they fled from Jaffna and not Tamil Nadu.”

An infant on board ensures preferential treatment from western authorities to asylum-seekers when they are detained. “In Australia, it takes just two months for women with babies to be released and given asylum after detention. I have friends who had an arrangement with girls in the camps to bear their children. It makes it a lot easier,” says Edward Kumar, a refugee in Chennai.

The agents buy dilapidated fishing boats, some barely sea-worthy, known among the refugees as ‘rollers’ after tales of such boats rolling over mid-sea killing everybody onboard. There are no crew members or safety jackets. Five youth are chosen to steer the ship. The voyage takes 14 and 45 days each to reach Australia and Canada respectively.

“Food is scarce and we have to ration it. Usually just bread, jam and pickle that don’t get spoilt. Some agents are generous enough to provide milk powder and baby food. But the food barely lasts the trip. Everybody sleeps huddled together below the deck,” says Edward.

Agents tutor the refugees to claim that they fled from Jaffna and not Tamil Nadu

The boarding points can be anywhere along the coast of Tamil Nadu or Kerala and is usually a well-kept secret until the day of the journey. However, due to heavy patrolling, many agents are putting people on fishing boats in the dead of the night before transferring them mid-sea on to a waiting ‘roller’.

“The modus operandi of the agents has changed after intense patrolling by the Coast Guard and Indian Navy off the Palk Straits during and after the war in Sri Lanka,” says a senior officer of the Q Branch CID, a special cell of the Tamil Nadu Police that keeps a tab on the activities of Lankan refugees in the state.

“It is difficult to determine the boarding points. Now many are trying to leave from Kerala to avoid detection,” says the Q Branch officer. “Last year, we received information that 38 refugees were to set sail from Kollam. They were detained and it was revealed that they had paid nearly Rs 5 lakh to agents to ferry them to Australia. Since then we have clamped down on such human traffickers.”

In 2010, the Q Branch busted close to eight networks that were planning to smuggle out nearly 1,000 refugees. On 26 January, after intercepting a car in Ramanathapuram suspected to be carrying human smugglers, officers were stunned to find 500 g of heroin, 22 carbines of .9 mm calibre and a satellite phone.

“Most of the agents are dangerous and they are duping the refugees. Many refugees are dumped at godforsaken islands. We are making refugees aware of such unscrupulous people and to avoid them at any cost,” says SC Chandrahasan, director of the Chennai-based Refugee Rehabilitation Organisation.

Despite the hostility to these ‘boat people’ in countries like Australia and Canada, most still think the risk is worth it. For instance, Australia stopped processing claims of Sri Lankans and detains them at a notorious camp called Christmas Island, even packing off people under naval escorts to Malaysia under a refugee-swapping agreement. This hardline stand has forced many to undertake journeys to France where Rule No. 4 assumes utmost importance for being granted asylum. Meanwhile, Canada is rethinking its strategy after a suspected LTTE renegade was found aboard a ship that landed at Canadian shores last year.

SINCE MOST asylum-seekers destroy their ID papers, in the absence of inter-state information sharing, it becomes impossible to ascertain whether the refugees are from India or Sri Lanka. Even the United Nations Human Rights Commission (UNHCR), which is facilitating the return of Tamil refugees to Sri Lanka, is surprised that many are choosing to undertake this journey of death.

The UNHCR says that conditions in Jaffna and other Tamil-dominated areas that bore the brunt of war “are returning to normal and there is no need for groupbased protection and presumption of eligibility as asylum-seekers for Sri Lankan Tamils”. However, many who fled for their lives during the war feel the need to escape for their livelihoods now.

“I can get good education in India but my refugee status does not allow me to take up a job commensurate with my education,” says Kutty, a refugee from Mandapam. “Most of us work as coolies or daily-wage labourers and have to report back for a headcount by sunset. What is the point in continuing this existence if I can’t even gift a gramme of gold to my sister for her marriage? And I don’t trust Mahinda Rajpaksa enough to take the risk of going back to Sri Lanka. I would rather die trying to secure a better life for my family than go back to my homeland.”

For many of the young and restless, tales of the good life stream in from those who managed to get asylum. And for those waiting in the wings, tales of watery graves are no deterrent before they sign up for the “voyage of the damned”.

Sai Manish is a Correspondent with Tehelka.
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