Dinouk Columbage, in The Sunday Leader, 5 August 2012, where the title reads “Post War – The Cries Of The Desperate And Destitute”
“Overcrowded and often unseaworthy vessels are the only options for the hundreds looking to flee the poverty in Sri Lanka ‘ –caption and Pic from Sunday Leader … but note that this boat appears to be a multi-day trawler with capability of the sort exemplified in the article by Bernardo Brown and in the details surrounding my presentation of the saga of Mahesh Pushpakumara; Web Editor
Mathusha Sivajalingham, a 36-year-old mother of two boys (aged 5 and 8), is a victim of the three decade long war. The conflict saw her husband killed, her shop and home destroyed and for two years she and her children lived in several different IDP camps. In the face of abject poverty and a bleak future, Sivajalingham took her children and attempted to migrate to Australia aboard one of the growing number of illegal boats. Her attempt was a failure and she is now working in Colombo as a street cleaner.
“Since 2006, when my husband was killed by a landmine, I have been forced to raise my children on my own. I ran a small tea shop in the main town in Kilinochchi. However, when the fighting became fierce in 2009 I took my children and fled. From then onwards, until last year, we were forced to stay in several different IDP camps in the North”, she said.
Sivajalingham explained that her joyous return home from the IDP camp early this year was ruined when she found her shop had been destroyed. “In the space of two years I had lost everything I had rebuilt after my husband’s death. The fighting not only cost me my shop, but also the land. In all the chaos I lost the deeds to the land. There is no way of proving ownership and so I could not obtain a bank loan to rebuild.”
In February Sivajalingham was contacted by her cousin who was then living in the UK. “He told me that he was moving to Australia and that I must bring my children and come to live with him that he would provide for us as he did not have a family of his own. The Australian authorities refused my application for a visa even though I fulfilled the required criteria. I was becoming desperate as I could not earn enough money to even feed the family. For the last six months I have been forced to live with friends relying on their charity. I could not go on doing that.”
In May Sivajalingham’s desperation had reached tipping point. “I approached a friend in Trincomalee and asked him how I could get in touch with the boat people. I knew it was illegal but I had no choice, we had to leave. If we did not, my children would have no future. I could not even afford proper clothes for them to attend school. I had been told that those who get to Australia would remain in a camp for two weeks before being released. A year after being released I would then be granted citizenship, which would mean I would be able to get a job and send my children to school”, she explained.
Sivajalingham was introduced to a fisherman by her friend who said he could organise her trip, provided she could raise Rs. 200,000 per person. “I contacted my cousin and explained to him how I was planning to travel across. He tried to convince me not to, saying it was too dangerous. He could not fully understand the situation I was faced with. After much convincing on my part he agreed to transfer whatever money he could to help fund the trip”, she said.
By June Sivajalingham had sold off most of her belongings to raise the necessary money for her and her children to leave. “When I fled the fighting I took all my jewellery with me, those pieces now belong to a pawn shop owner including my wedding ring. We were told to come to Trincomalee where we would wait till the boat was ready. We spent a week with my friend. On June 2, I was told that we would be leaving that night and that the smugglers would come to collect us. When they arrived they told us to leave most of our belongings and take only a few clothing items. They asked for the money up front. I was scared. They could have robbed us and maybe even killed us and there would be nothing I could do”, she explained.
Sivajalingham said that she and her children were put into a van and driven away. “It was very dark and they had covered the windows so we could not see where we were going. When we finally stopped we found we were at the beach. They told us to board a fishing boat which took us out to a larger boat far out at sea.”
Sivajalingham said that there were over a hundred other asylum seekers on board, along with several people who made up the crew of the vessel. “We had very little room. For the duration of the trip we took turns sleeping. Half of us would remain above deck, while the rest would sleep below. I was worried about the safety of my children, with that many people in a confined space anything could have happened. The crew avoided us for most of the journey, only giving us food and instructing us when to sleep and when to come up on to the deck”, she said.
“The food was horrible, dry bread and gravy. They had water but that was sparingly distributed amongst us. My youngest son became very sick and could not retain any of his food. I was worried that he would not survive the journey,” Sivajalingham explained. During day time the people had nothing to do; many of them chose to keep to themselves while others tried to pass the day sleeping. “It was hardest on the children; they were scared but also restless. They wanted to run around, but there was very little room”, she said.
The journey took over 12 days, with the crew telling their passengers that they would need to travel slowly so as not to attract the attention of the naval patrols. “One day we were all pushed below deck and told not to come out until summoned. Half an hour later a man came below deck and ordered us to come up. We found navy sailors standing around with a naval boat beside ours. Most of the others looked scared, but I was secretly relieved. If we went on much longer I was worried my child would have died. He had not eaten in two days”, she said.
According to Sivajalingham the boat was ordered to return to the Trincomalee port under the watch of the navy vessel. On arrival members of the police had come to arrest everyone. “We were told that the crew was robbing us and that when we arrive in Australia we would not be allowed to leave the camp.”
Sivajalingham spent three days in police custody, before her friend was able to post bail for her and her children. “The police questioned us about how we contacted the smugglers, and how we raised the money. They told us that we had been lied to and that the Australian government would never give us citizenship or allow my children to go to school there”, she said.
Sivajalingham has now sent her children back to Trincomalee where they are living with her friend and schooling there. “I am staying in Colombo looking for work, it is hard to leave my children but I must if they are to have a future.”
Mahani Seevanan, an elderly resident of the Vanni, has not seen her son Rajitha Seevanan in several months since he left to Australia with the human smugglers. “He had no work back home. He used to be a fisherman but his boat was stolen when we fled the fighting in the war”, she said.
According to Seevanan in April her son came home one night explaining that he had met people who had promised him a job in Australia. “He came home one night and told me to pack some clothes and come with him to Colombo. We arrived at my sister’s house; he wanted me to stay there while he went to Australia. He told me he had met some people who promised they could take him to Australia.”
She explained that despite her concerns he left. “It was nearly three weeks before I heard from him. I was devastated in that time because we had heard a story that a boat attempting to reach Australia had sunk. He told me he was in a detention centre and said that when he is released he would send money across so that I could join him.”
She explained that despite contacting the Australian embassy, she has not been able to track her son on Christmas Island. “I do not know if he has been released or if he is still in the detention centre. He has not called or sent any money. I now just fear for his safety”, she said.
Despite the growing poverty and unemployment in the former war zones which has been encouraging the ‘migration’ of these people, they have been no moves by the government to alleviate the burden faced by them. The majority of those fleeing to Australia do so in the face of unemployment. In Sri Lanka they have received little or no financial support from the state. Commander Kosala Warnakulasuriya, Sri Lanka Navy spokesperson, explained that they had requested that the Australian authorities deport all Sri Lankans in the detention centres back to Sri Lanka. “It is dangerous for them to turn back the boats as most of those vessels are not seaworthy, however, those on Christmas Island must be sent back”, he said.