Udappu’s beleagured economic situation and the imperative to migrate

Nirmala Kannangara, in the Sunday Leader, 23 Septemeber 2012 where the title runs: “Tale of Udappuwa Asylum Seekers“**

Raju spoke of the failed attempt to get out of Sri Lanka and one of Indrapalan’s sons has successfully sort asylum in UK while the other son awaits in Chritstmas Island. Although the government has imposed many restrictions against human trafficking, most of the Tamil youth in Udappuwa – a hamlet which is 5km away from the Chilaw- Puttalam main road still find ‘ways’ to leave the country illegally seeking asylum in many western countries. For them there is no other way to get over from poverty, which they have inherited from their forefathers. There are over 2,500 families living in Udappuwa. Out of them around 15 families are Muslim whilst the rest are Tamils but not a single Sinhalese family.
“Had there been any Sinhala families living in this village, the respective governments and their representatives would have provided us the basic facilities we were longing for,” the residents said.
For them there are no job opportunities available in the village and the neighbouring villages too do not want to take their service simply because they are Tamils.
“More than seven months of the year we cannot go to sea due to the strong winds. We have been cut off from rest of the country and are a forgotten segment. All our bordering villages are either Sinhala or Muslim. None of them want to give even a daily paid job solely because we are Tamils. To get out of these problems there is no other way but to go to a foreign country for greener pastures,” said Raju. Raju was one of the members of a failed group of 51 who was arrested in mid seas within Sri Lankan waters whilst trying to go to Australia in a trawler three months ago. Refuting the government’s claim that peace and stability have been brought into the lives of the minorities, these youth in Udappuwa claim that the government has failed to bring stability to their lives. These youths believe that they have been marginalized because of their ethnicity and without having any other options to make a living; they still prefer to take a ‘deadly risk’ to go to Australia. Although many have been able to cross the Sri Lankan waters without any issue, there are over 50 youth in Udappuwa who could not accomplish their long standing dreams.
According to Raju, despite Sri Lanka Navy’s (SLN) tremendous effort to tighten the coastal security to prevent human trafficking trade which they believe as one of the largest rackets in the country, the SLN have still failed to combat it.
“Why do they try to prevent the youth from going to another country seeking asylum if they do not have any solution to look after the people in this country. It is unfair for them to categorize us. Whether Tamils, Muslims or Burghers we are Sri Lankans. According to this government, it is the Tamil diaspora that have created an ideology amongst the western nations that minority Tamils are not treated properly in Sri Lanka and although the three decade war is now over, still the Tamils are into trafficking for their personal benefits. It is unfair to level allegations as such. We have been sidelined by the respective governments and our local and national representatives. That is why we have had to take deadly risks to enter another country illegally,” claimed Raju.
Describing how his ‘unforgettable’ failed attempt to go out of the country illegally, Raju added that had the Navy failed to open the underground entry flap, all the 51 youths would have gone to Christmas Island by now.
“An agent supposed to be from the organizers wanted forty of us from Udappuwa to get ready to go to the Christmas Island and wanted our families to pay their representatives Rs. 3 lakhs each, once we cross the Sri Lankan waters. The agreement was that the rest of the payment – Rs. 5 lakhs each had to be paid after we get employment in Australia. Since there is a rule in Australia that illegal migrants cannot be deported once they enter the country and have to consider them as refugees, our people prefer to go to Christmas Island by sea even violating immigration laws. In addition, these agents take youth even to Canada, New Zealand and to some other European countries in order to get refugee status on sympathy grounds,” added Raju. According to Raju, although they had several rounds of discussions with some representatives of the agents, they have never met or seen who these agents were that had come to help them out. “These representatives wanted us to get ready for the journey and said that they would be coming to pick us up on June 17. Forty of us were asked to come near the Chilaw post office around 7pm on this particular day. There were seven youth from Chilaw, two from Mulaitivu and two said to be from India as well. We were all asked to get into a Colombo bound bus which they had hired and wanted us to tell the security forces if questioned that we were going to Trincomalee on a trip. The bus went straight to Trincomalee and from there to Potuvil. We were once again asked to tell the security forces that we were going on a pilgrimage to Kataragama if we were questioned. We were straight taken to Pottuvil jungles and had to walk to a small fishing village close by. It was around 8pm on June 18 when we were asked to get into three boats. We were taken to mid seas where a trawler was waiting for us. We had to get into the trawler and started our risky journey by which time over 40 people who were not familiar with mid sea journeys were throwing out and sleeping inside the below deck cabins,” said Raju.
Since the trawler was moving fast, neither the traffickers nor the migrants ever thought that they will get caught to the SLN.
“It was past midnight when we noticed a small vessel approaching us. Although the navigators first thought that it was a navy vessel when it came closer only we knew that it was a huge ship and it went passing us. In a little while we saw a tiny boat coming towards us, which we thought yet to be another ship. But the traffickers got suspicious and wanted us to get into below deck cabins and kept the entry flap closed as it was a Navy boat that was speeding towards us. When we were jam packed inside the underground cabins, we heard the Navy officials talking with our navigator and his assistants. We heard the navigator telling the navy officers that the trawler had some engine trouble and were waiting for assistance from yet another fishing trawler in close proximity. Believing the navigator, the navy was about to leave the trawler but unfortunately one officer kicked the entry flap while going away. The entry flap opened and they saw us inside. That was how we got caught,” said Raju.
Raju was thankful to the SLN officers for not taking the law unto their hands and for treating the illegal migrants the best in the possible way they could until they were brought to the Hambantota Mahinda Rajapaksa Port.
“When they saw us in hiding, we were ordered to come out immediately. One SLN officer whom I think a high ranker wanted his officers not to harass us and to talk nicely to us. When they started questioning us as to who our agent was and how much money we had paid, I said that I had not paid a single cent by that time but would be paying after entering Australia. They thought that I was the agent. When they started questioning the rest and realizing the agent has not obtained any money from all of us they took us ashore and the CID who was waiting for us at the port took statements from each of us and released us,” added Raju.
Raju said that he doesn’t know the fate of the navigator, his three assistants and the three workers in the trawler.
“They too may have been arrested for human trafficking. The CID filed cases in the Hambantota magistrates court and we have to appear when our case is taken up. Last Tuesday we had to go to Hambantota and do not know as to how long we will have to go there spending money. It is very difficult for us to find money to go to Hambantota at a time when we do not have any livelihood. This time of the year we cannot go to sea as well. We are undergoing a difficult time. Surprisingly our local representatives too have failed to address our issues,” said Raju.
Meanwhile Indrapalan described as to how his two sons left the country seeking asylum in UK and Australia.
“My elder son went to Italy and from there to UK a few years back. Since there were no such strict restrictions he was able to go without any issue, but the second son took a risky decision to go to Australia three months back. He and his team was successful and did not get caught to the SLN despite the tough security net to catch the illegal migrants,” said Indrapalan.
Indrapalan too said that neither he nor his son knew who the agent was as they never came to the forefront but got the work through their representatives.
“These agents live in hotels in Negombo. What we came to know was that one agent books three to four rooms in different hotels where no one knows where he stays. That is how they operate these journeys,” said Indrapalan. According to Indrapalan, although his son had landed safely in Christmas Island, they were now being grilled by the Australian officials. “We were told that they are now being questioned. It is the God above that knows whether they will be sent back or whether they will be granted asylum on sympathetic grounds,” added Indrapalan.
“It was two of his friends that have told about the trip to my son. He was asked to pay Rs. 5 lakhs initially and Rs. 3 lakhs after he lands in Christmas Island. We paid the initial deposit and then our children were asked to come to Negombo. We too hired a van and went with them to Negombo. About 1km away from where they were supposed to get into the boats, we were turned back by the representatives. Later they were able to go safely. Once they landed we had to pay the rest to the representatives at Negombo,” he added.
According to Indrapalan, he was lucky enough to have money to pay the agents Rs. 8 lakhs.
“My wife had to sell some of her jewellery to pay this money. When I was asked to pay the money after my son landed in Christmas Island, I was instructed to bring the money to a certain place in Negombo. When I went to this place, there was no one to collect the money. Then I had to call one of their representatives. I was directed to go to another place and a man wearing a helmet came and took the money and went. He was wearing the helmet to cover his face,” said Indrapalan.

** Udappu is a fisher people village  north of Chilaw whic has been peopled byTtamils  who migrated there from Mannar and India in the Portuguese period. These Tamils are mostly Hindu. In their thinking the village is “Udappu” and not Udappuwa –a Sinhalicization imposed by the weight of governmental authority in an area where the the village is an island in a sea of Sinhalese, albeit Sinhalese who had a signifcant proportion who were bi-lingual and interconnected with Tamils till the process of assimilation into “Sinhalaness” snowballed in the mid 20th century. This comment is based on knowledge derived from chats with RL Stirrat and from assorted other sources. For detailed informaiton on religious and economic processes in Udappu, see M. Tanaka, Patrons, devotees and goddesses. ritual and power among the Tamil fishermen of Sri Lanka, Kyoto, Insitute for Researach in the Humanities, Kyoto university, 1991. Michael Roberts.

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