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Friday, October 30, 2009

Ready, willing and waiting for the next boat out

Hoping for a new life ... from left, S. Prabhu, Arun Raj, Kethwes Kumar and Kether Vran at the beach in Andimunai, Sri Lanka, near where the people-smuggling boats are launched. Photo: Matt Wade

The risk of failure is no deterrent for the many Sri Lankans who want to start a new life, writes Matt Wade in Andimunai, Sri Lanka.

In Andimunai it feels like everybody wants to leave.

The usual population of the sleepy fishing town on Sri Lanka's west coast is about 10,000. But locals say at least 2000 of them have gone overseas by boat.

Another 1000 or so have returned after being deported from places like Europe, North America and Australia.

Many of them will try another getaway.

''Each family has someone who has left, come back and tried to go again,'' says Arun Raj, a Tamil from Andimunai who made a failed bid for Europe and now wants to catch the next boat to Australia.

Andimunai is one of many towns along the Sri Lankan coast with a long tradition of "irregular migration".

Many leave for economic opportunity. But two decades of military conflict between the Sri Lankan army and Tamil Tiger rebels helped stoke the seaside people-smuggling culture.

Illegal departure by boat has become routine along the Sri Lankan coastline and this has underpinned the recent flurry of boats filled with Sri Lankan Tamil asylum seekers trying to reach Australia.

"Coastal areas [of Sri Lanka] have a higher degree of irregular migrants leaving the country via boats especially due to [the] easy exit route using sea transportation," says Tilani Jayawardhana, an academic from the Institute for Police Studies who has studied Sri Lankan migration.

People smugglers on the west coast - called "agents" by the locals - have the capacity to mount ambitious maritime projects to deliver their clients to foreign destinations.

Mano, a 29-year-old Tamil, says he recently joined a fleet of 10 boats travelling to Europe. The flotilla was well co-ordinated and the vessels kept in constant radio contact. This experienced network of people smugglers is responding to a spike in demand since the end of the civil war in May.

"There's a sense that a flight is on, especially among Tamil youth," one human rights activist told the Herald. "It's due to fear."

Andimunai, about 130 kilometres north of the capital Colombo, was relatively unscathed by the civil war but its Tamil population is still anxious.

"A lot of young people have gone missing from here," says a teacher, K. Mahadevan. "This is the reason so many youngsters are trying to leave by boat."

Europe has traditionally been the most popular destination for those leaving Andimunai, but locals say more boats are being organised to Australia.

This is more than just hearsay.

Three weeks ago police burst in on a gang of smugglers meeting clients bound for Australia at the Ranvil Beach Hotel in Chilaw, a town 35 kilometres south of Andimunai. The ringleaders had hired a function room at the hotel where they were negotiating the final downpayments for the voyage with clients hours before the boat was due to leave.

Normally smugglers demand a portion of the total smuggling fee in advance and arrangements are made for relatives in Sri Lanka to deliver the balance once the asylum seeker has reached the destination. Men at Andimunai said the going rate for passage to Australia by boat was between $3000 and $7000.

The hotel raid has made smugglers more cautious but no one expects it to make much difference. Locals say the boat owner was released by police almost immediately and the remaining crew members were not held for long. The wealthy, well-connected smugglers know who to pay to ensure their boats can leave Sri Lanka undetected. They can also buy freedom if caught.

It's their relatively poor and desperate clients who are the most vulnerable.

Some never make it to their destination.

Arun Raj says he knows three men from Andimunai who have perished at sea while trying to make it to another country.

Sumit Mendis says his life has been ruined by a boat trip to Australia in the hope of asylum. Mendis and his brother were with 10 other Sinhalese men who managed to navigate a small vessel all the way to Shark Bay in Western Australia a year ago.

Their application for asylum was eventually rejected and the brothers were deported with six other group members earlier this month.

Ever since, Mendis has been lying low at his parent's home near the beach at Chilaw. He claims to have fears for his safety after being harassed by police and the agent who arranged last year's boat to Australia. His 26-year-old brother, Prasadh, was thrown into jail on his return to Sri Lanka on suspicion of people smuggling.

The family deny the charge and say Prasadh has been so badly bashed in custody that his hearing has been damaged and his mental health impaired.

"We have been abandoned and ostracised," Sumit told the Herald. "We are now a joke in our village."

Stories of failed migration such as this one are common in Sri Lanka. But they don't seem to be much of a deterrent. Instead many in Andimunai joke about their adventures on the high seas and encounters with immigration authorities across the globe.

''It's not a big deal if you get caught,'' says Tony, a hotelier. ''You just find a new agent and try again later.''

He endured a gruelling 39-day voyage to Italy in 2004. But Tony only made it ashore for four days before his cover was blown. He was deported and spent 21 days in jail in Sri Lanka.

"Of course I'll go again," he says. "Maybe I'll try Australia next time."

The Sydney Morning Herald

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About This Blog

Velupillai Prabhakaran

The rest of the world might never understand the violence Velupillai Prabhakaran stood for, but its imprint on Sri Lanka is wide and deep. For 26 years, the elusive leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) had waged war with the government to win an independent homeland, or eelam, for the island's Tamil minority. The struggle claimed more than 70,000 lives--including, on May 18, Prabhakaran's. The government says he was killed, along with 17 of his trusted lieutenants, while fleeing an army ambush.

Prabhakaran, 54, was born to a middle-class family on the Jaffna Peninsula. Incensed by discrimination against Tamils and radicalized by a militant grade-school teacher, Prabhakaran founded the LTTE in 1976, a year after a group he headed claimed responsibility for killing Jaffna's mayor. By 1983 the guerrilla movement--which pioneered suicide bombings and the recruitment of child soldiers--escalated the fighting into a civil war.

At the height of his power earlier this decade, Prabhakaran led a de facto government that controlled vast swaths of territory and boasted its own systems of taxes, roads and courts. As the army closed in, he allegedly used thousands of Tamil civilians as human shields. By the final days, just 250 LTTE members remained. They died too, along with the dream of eelam.

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