Amanda Hodge, on the SLNS Samudura courtesy of The Australian, 30 July 2012
UNDER a clammy half-moon, the Sri Lankan navy ship Samudura inches towards the intimidating beams of a 330m super-tanker until the two hulls collide with a gentle thud. The SLNS Samudura is less than one-fifth the size of the Euronav, but it was the navy that was flexing its muscles early yesterday as it successfully transferred 28 failed asylum-seekers from the merchant vessel in a dramatic midnight operation at sea.
Just days after Australia deported the first Sri Lankan Tamil since the end of the civil war there in May 2009, the operation marks an escalation in Sri Lankan efforts to stop asylum-seeker boats and a new level of co-operation between the two nations, which worked in tandem to co-ordinate the weekend rescue and return. Sri Lankan authorities say they have intercepted and detained about 500 asylum-seekers this month, the highest monthly figure on record. The Euronav lowers its gangplank and a rope ladder that the 28 failed asylum-seekers must use to reach the vessel, about 15m below the deck of the merchant ship. This is the first such operation to be conducted by the peacetime Sri Lankan navy, which until May 2009 was consumed by the internal conflict with Tamil Tiger rebels.
These are not the only asylum-seekers to be intercepted at the weekend. Another two were caught trying to leave the west coast harbour of Negombo late on Friday and early Saturday, and a third boat was sailing back to Trincomalee last night after it was detected by a navy patrol.
Fear, poverty and insecurity have previously driven the exodus from Sri Lanka, but there are no clear reasons for this latest rush of boats, more than three years after the military crushed the Tamil Tiger rebellion. Refugee advocates say rejected Sri Lankan asylum-seekers deported from Western nations are filling the boats in parts of the west and north, fearing retribution from the security forces.
Tamil elements in eastern Trincomalee speculate that the people-smuggling business there is run by government-aligned agents who demand the deeds to land and property as down-payment in order to bring in more Sinhalese settlers and change the demographics of the traditionally Tamil-dominated area.
Samudura’s skipper, Captain Y.N. Jayarathna, suspects the latest asylum-seekers have been encouraged by rumours that the Australian government needs 10,000 foreign workers to keep up with the minerals boom.
There’s no doubt in the mind of Sathis Spencer, among the batch of failed asylum-seekers. “The real problem here is the economy,” he says. The Tamil father of two from Kandy, a fluent English, Tamil and Sinhalese speaker, spent seven years working legally abroad in London and Dubai, but says he was forced to turn to people-smugglers after losing his money in a failed business venture.
“We have to be honest, there’s nothing like the LTTE or armed troubles,” he told The Australian after filing off a converted trawler and on to a Colombo fisheries dock with 30 other men on Saturday morning.
“As a Tamil in (Sinhalese-dominated) Kandy, people question why you’re there. Police start tracking you and CID comes and that happens frequently because I am from Vavuniya in the north. The LTTE trouble is long back, but as Tamils we have a loophole to say the army is chasing us. What I heard was Australia won’t deport you if you say that.”
Unlike other failed asylum-seekers, Sathis is well-informed. He knew how far the journey was, how long it would take, and the dilemma the Australian government faces in reconciling its international obligations with its domestic political imperatives.
“They want to send back boats but they can’t because they have so much human rights,” he said.
If Sri Lankans don’t believe the Australian government is serious about stopping the boats, few doubt their navy’s intentions after the July crackdown. Sixteen hours after Sathis Spencer is back on land, the crew of the French Euronav are helping another 28 Sri Lankans into harnesses, guiding them down the ramp and on to the rope ladder held fast by Sri Lankan navy sailors below. By 2.30am, 25 men, four women and one seven-year-old boy are safely on board the Samudura.
The operation is an unscheduled patrol — and expense — for the Sri Lankan navy’s stretched resources.
The boat, with its cargo of asylum-seekers who had paid 1.3 million rupees ($9500) each, broke down 200 nautical miles into the journey from Batticaloa. It foundered for 11 days after a failed naval rescue attempt, and drifted 130 nautical miles into the high seas shipping lanes before Australian and Sri Lankan authorities found a solution. The Euronav captain agreed to come to the crippled boat’s aid and bring the passengers into Sri Lankan waters.
“We were told they (Euronav) would help us and arrange a ship, but we didn’t know they were going to take us back to Sri Lanka,” says Batticaloan native Sivanesaragha, who scraped together his R300,000 down payment by handing over the deeds to his land and borrowing from his girlfriend’s wedding dowry. Our families are still poor and we have to change our lives. We’re looking for our future and our freedom. But so many people here are still bachelors and now no one will want to marry them.”
Dancer and aspiring hip hop artist G. Nishakaran, who is also Batticaloan, says he is devastated by his failure and fears for his future. “You can’t guess who your enemies are,” he says. As the son of a former Tamil resistance fighter he fears the the Sinhalese authorities. But it was a Tamil man who sold him lies and false hopes for a vastly inflated ocean passage on an unseaworthy boat.
NB: readers are well adviced to see the You Tube video on this operation as well as the second You Tube video presenting an interview with Sathis Spencer in English — both embedded within the online version of today’s Australian. Spencer was among those arrested on a trawler impounded off Negombo.