By Ben Doherty and Som Patidars
A PEOPLE-SMUGGLING network is targeting Tamil refugees in southern India, promising them safe passage across the Indian Ocean and Australian citizenship when they arrive.
But boats have already been lost. Refugee advocates say at least two boats, carrying up to 50 people, disappeared off India’s south coast late last year.
The past six months have seen a spike in the number of boats leaving Sri Lanka and southern India bound for Australian territorial waters, with boats intercepted in the past three days at Ashmore Islands, Christmas and Cocos islands.
Already this year, 708 people claiming to be from Sri Lanka, many arriving in boats from India, have arrived in Australian waters. For the full year last year, the figure was 211.
While the jump is dramatic, it represents a tiny fraction – half of 1 per cent – of the Tamil refugee population. The UN estimates more than 140,000 Sri Lankan Tamils are displaced across 65 countries. More than 70,000 live in 112 refugee camps in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu.
An MP from the south-west Indian state of Kerala, K. N. Balagopal, told The Age that international syndicates were preying on refugees who are afraid to return to Sri Lanka for fear of persecution but also know they cannot become Indian citizens.
“It is not one side, this is international trafficking. These elements are cheating these refugees by promising to send them to Australia and taking their money. But agents from the Indian side can’t plan everything, they must have contacts or agents on the Australian side.”
In Chennai, S.C. Chandrahasan, himself a refugee and treasurer of the Organisation for Eelam Refugees Rehabilitation, said most Tamil refugees in south India were wary of the people smugglers.
“But there are some refugees who are being misled by a group of people who benefit from this human trafficking. They inform the people, who are gullible, that you will be able to make 100,000 rupees a month [$A1800], compared to 1000 rupees here. One lady said she was told she would get citizenship on arrival.”
Typically, asylum seekers pay between 50,000 and 200,000 rupees for a spot on a boat. Some sell all that they own, or borrow heavily, to pay a deposit.
Mr Chandrahasan said some of the recently caught refugees were on their second or third attempts to reach Australia. Some refugees had attempted suicide over the debts they carry.
Gladston Xavier, a professor of Social Work at Loyola College in Chennai, said the traffickers had convinced Tamils they will be quickly granted asylum.
“There is a false sense of belief that Australia will roll out the red carpet for them,” he said.
“These communities know of people that have been in immigration detention for four years, but they are … convinced into believing they will be accepted straight away.”
Both Dr Xavier and Mr Chandrahasan told The Age boats carrying asylum seekers from southern India to Australia were lost at sea last year.
“Their relatives have heard nothing, we have to presume they were drowned,” Mr Chandrahasan said.
Between 40 and 50 people were on board the boats, Dr Xavier said.
The latest group stopped at the Indian coastline consisted of 135 asylum seekers, including an 18-month-old infant, picked up on board a fishing trawler off the Kerala coast near Kollam last
week. Another 16 people were caught waiting onshore.
The seized boat was overloaded and hopelessly unprepared for the journey. There was some food on board, but insufficient drinking water.
Women and children on the boat were kept below deck in massive iceboxes usually used to hold fish. When police discovered them, many were gasping for breath.
“These refugees were being held in completely inhumane conditions,” Kollam assistant superintendent of police Thomson Jose told The Age.
Police said some of the asylum seekers have relatives who have reached Australia. Selvi, 21, said she fled for a better life: “We were ousted from our country because we are Tamils. In India, we are not treated as citizens. Is there anything wrong in leaving this country for a better future?”
Kerala, on India’s south-west coast, has become the favoured departure point for Tamils seeking asylum in Australia.
They come from Sri Lanka to India, brought by people smugglers, or they have escaped from camps in Tamil Nadu.
They choose the distant side of the Indian subcontinent because its waters are less keenly patrolled than the eastern coast.
“The Kerala coast provides favourable condition for these refugees due to availability of cheap boats and local Tamil support,” Mr Jose said.
Boats are also still leaving directly from Sri Lanka. A boatload of 28 men was picked up off the east coast of Sri Lanka on Tuesday, while another 26 men, Pakistanis and Afghans, were waiting onshore.
A spokesman for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said Australian government agencies were working with Indian authorities to discourage regional people-smuggling ventures. COURTESY:SYDNEY MORNING HERALD