Lost in Transportation: Tamil Refugees in India and their Dangerous Gambles

Ben Doherty, in Tamilnadu, India,  from the Sydney Morning Herald, 11 Sept. 2011

Pic by Kate Geraghty

On the broad sands of southern India’s beaches lie thousands of wooden dhows and fibre glass skiffs, plied in trades, legitimate and otherwise, in the Bay of Bengal. On one of these boats, from one of these beaches, two years ago, Rathidevi’s son Dhuuaragan leftIndia, and his life in a refugee camp, bound for Australia. She has not heard from him since. She does not know whether he is alive or dead. Four months after her son left in October 2009, she received a phone call from a number and a voice she did not recognise, telling her her son was in an Indonesian jail. The line then dropped out. ”I do not know who called me.”



Dhuuragan’s family invested everything in his trip. ”We had to pay 1½ lakhs [$A3100],” Rathidevi says. ”We sold all the jewellery we had, all the gold that I had. We sold everything to pay that money.”

With the end of Sri Lanka’s civil war two years ago, the movement of Tamil asylum seekers across the globe has slowed. But at least three times in the past three months, groups of Tamil asylum seekers have been arrested by authorities trying to leave for Australia, in one case caught standing on a beach in the early hours of the morning waiting for their boat. Last month, 147 men, women and children were arrested in Andhra Pradesh, about to meet their ”migration agent”.News of Australia’s inchoate ”Malaysia solution” has reached refugee camps in India, but Rathidevi says while it might be a deterrent for some, others will still try. ”Some people might still want to send their sons in spite of knowing they will not be processed in Australia. Even after hearing that I have not heard from my son after two years, some parents still send their children over there.”

It probably would not have stopped Dhuuragan, she says.

For Tamils, life has not returned to normal in Sri Lanka, especially in the still heavily militarised north. About 72,000 Tamil refugees remain in camps funded and run by the Indian government in the southern state of Tamil Nadu. In comparison to the brutal days of Sri Lanka’s civil war, life is good in the camps. Residents have access to education and health services identical to their Indian neighbours outside the wire. But there are few prospects, and fewer ways out. The refugees scrap for the lowest-paying, most dangerous jobs, those that locals won’t take. Men paint high-rise buildings as itinerant workers in distant cities. They can never become Indian citizens, and their adopted country is not a signatory to the UN Convention on Refugees so they have few legal protections.

Many of the refugees await the day they can return to Sri Lanka. Some fled two decades ago. Many of the children and teenagers here were born in India, and have ”never seen the colour of the island”. But others doubt their homeland, where the ethnic Sinhalese majority has a stranglehold on government and the Tamil-homeland north still swarms with government soldiers, will ever be safe for their return. S.C. Chandrahasan, treasurer of the Organisation for Eelam Refugees Rehabilitation and himself a refugee, says there is a sophisticated human trafficking network operating in southernIndia. The traffickers prey on Tamil, men mainly, no longer in danger for their lives, but frustrated by the prospect of an entire life spent as a refugee.

”Over time, people smuggling has become a big business. Now they are like a mafia, they have power in the local community and local government also.” For those looking to flee, Australia and Canada- known as ”generous” acceptors of asylum seekers – are the preferred destinations. But for the traffickers, it’s only ever about the money, a former people smuggler, speaking on condition of anonymity, tells The Saturday Age.

The boat owners are mostly Tamils themselves. Many of them worked for the terrorist Tamil Tigers during the war, smuggling weapons and supplies to the Tigers’ fighters. One-way passage for a single man can run as high as 500,000 rupees ($A10,450). But most smugglers, realising their clients’ limited means, will take 100,000 rupees ($A2090) upfront with the balance paid when the passenger reaches the destination.

They offer discounts for families, particularly those with infants. The Saturday Age is told some boat-masters insist on having children on board. ”Now they ask for women to be on board, especial[ly] with young children, because it is easier for families to get asylum than it is for young men. If you have [a] family, your rate is less, if you a man by yourself, it is more.’


The definitive manner in which Ben Doherty writes about the PRESENT circumstances in Sri Lanka is rather mind-boggling. For my articles on Australian policies towards boat people, and the media coverage of the issue, with its many simplicities and fallacies, see the following articles:

Tamil Migration within and beyond Sri Lanka, 5 October 2009  = http://thuppahis.com/2009/12/05/tamil-migration-within-and-beyond-sri-lanka/

Taken in by Tamil Tall Tales = 4 Nov 2009 = http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/opinion/taken-in-by-tamil-tall-tales/story-e6frg6zo-1225794053578

Adjutant Australia: Controlling Boat People, 7 Nov 2009 = http://groundviews.org/2009/11/07/adjutant-australia-controlling-boat-people/

Crude reasoning, 17 November 2009 = http://www.abc.net.au/unleashed/stories/s2736651.htm

‘Alex’ Kuhendrarajah and the Australian media, January 20, 2010 = http://asiapacific.anu.edu.au/blogs/southasiamasala/2010/01/20/%E2%80%98alex%E2%80%99-kuhendrarajah-and-the-australian-media/

Aussies swallow lies & Rajapakses miss a trick, 31 Oct 2010 = http://thuppahis.com/2010/10/31/aussies-swallow-lies-rajapakses-miss-a-trick/

From “Leaky Wooden Boats” to the Imbecile Asian, 27 December 2010 = http://thuppahis.com/2010/12/27/from-%E2%80%9Cleaky-wooden-boats%E2%80%9D-to-the-imbecile-asian-2/

ALSO SEE http://thuppahis.com/2011/09/09/media-and-the-suffering-of-the-tamil-people-noel-nadesans-open-letter-to-australians/ AND

CHARLES DE HAVILLAND  = http://thuppahis.com/2011/09/05/sri-lanka-unicef-expands-family-reunion-programme/

WEERASINGHE, “Resettlement of Tamil Refugees in India within Sri Lanka in Progress,”= http://thuppahis.com/2011/09/01/resettlement-of-tamil-refugees-in-india-within-lanka-in-process/



Filed under asylum-seekers, australian media, Eelam, IDP camps, liberation tigers of tamil eelam, life stories, LTTE, news fabrication, people smugglers, prabhakaran, propaganda, Sinhala-Tamil Relations, Tamil civilians, Tamil migration, terrorism, truth as casualty of war, unusual people, wikileaks

7 responses to “Lost in Transportation: Tamil Refugees in India and their Dangerous Gambles

  1. Cedric

    I suppose the conditions in Tamil Nadu must be so good that, not a single local wants to join them and sail to developing countries like Australia and Canada….

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