Sob Stories from returned Sinhalese Boat People…… with some chillie added by Hodge and Perera

Amanda Hodge in The Australian, 9 October 2012, where the title runs: “Hardships after a long trip home

JOSEPH Fernando has been fishing every day since he returned to Sri Lanka 17 days ago, a failed asylum-seeker.His total income since his ignominious homecoming is about $120. His decision to return to Sri Lanka — after hawking the family gold and borrowing steeply from money lenders to pay his passage — was driven by the news on arrival that Australian laws had changed. Unlike the many who went before him, Fernando discovered only after reaching Australia that he could not earn money while his appeal for asylum was considered. Instead he would be sent to Nauru. Faced with two stark choices, Fernando abandoned his thin asylum claim rather than leave his family with no support while he awaited adjudication on a Micronesian island best known for pigeon stool.

Theoretically at least, Australia’s new offshore processing laws should be a deal-breaker for most Sri Lankans. Sri Lankan asylum-seekers seeking a brighter economic future have long understood that even an ultimately unsuccessful wait for permanent residency can be a lucrative consolation prize.

In the months and sometimes years it takes to exhaust the appeals process, an asylum-seeker working the jobs most Australians do not want to do can change the destiny of his family back home.

That was Fernando’s intention: he has four sons and is adamant none of them will be subsistence fishermen.

Now he and most of the 45 fellow Sri Lankans who have chosen to leave Australia or Nauru since the new policy on August 13 — the vast majority Sinhalese Catholics — are relying on the $3300 Australian government sweetener to help lift them out of the emergency poverty to which many have returned.

But while Fernando and others ponder their future in Sri Lanka, an entirely different returnee crisis has unfolded in the Tamil-dominated north as the government finally closed down its notorious Manik Farm IDP (internally displaced people) camp.

Instead of being delivered to their northern village of Keppapilavu, about 350 of the final 1160 Tamil residents who left the camp earlier this month were dropped off at a newly cleared patch of jungle several kilometres short of their ancestral land.

Soldiers helped widowed mothers fashion shelters against monsoonal rains. The rest say they were left to fend for themselves with supplied tarpaulins and basic cooking utensils.

They are not the first Tamils to complain of land-grabbing and displacement since returning to former war torn north and eastern regions. The Keppapilavu villagers are convinced the government’s promised resettlement was a ruse to speed the closure of a camp that has become an embarrassment as the country prepares for an imminent UN human rights commission periodic review.

The government has rejected accusations the military seized their land for an army cantonment. Army spokesman Brigadier Vijitha Ravipriya insisted most displaced people were happily returning to their homes with military help, and that army camps were being built only on government land. Some areas, however, had been declared “no-go to prevent unnecessary accidents”, he added.

In the months after the Sinhalese-dominated army crushed the Tamil resistance in May 2009, Manik Farm became one of the world’s largest IDP camps. At its height, it held more than 200,000 war-traumatised Tamils — mass casualties of a conflict sharply escalated by a government determined to end the 26-year civil war. International human rights groups accused the government of running it as an internment camp. Civilians were herded from conflict zones to huge barbed-wire-ringed tent cities. For the first six months, they were not allowed to leave, although thousands bribed their way out.

The Keppapilavu villagers held out to the end, in the vain hope the army would eventually vacate their land. It was not to be.

In this context, it seems unlikely the five-man tents accommodating the first asylum-seekers in Nauru will be so odious a prospect to such people, the like of which still make up the bulk of Sri Lankan asylum-seekers.

Sri Lanka’s National Peace Council executive director Jehan Perera worries that an unintended consequence of Australia’s tough new policy is that more Tamil asylum-seekers — who might otherwise have made the perilous Indian Ocean journey alone — may now be driven to bring their families with them.

“The Tamils who have been resettled (from IDP camps) have every reason to leave and they’re the ones who might try to bring their families so they can all be together. They have lost everything due to the war and they have to start from scratch,” he says.

“The government has no systematic plan to help them begin their lives. Also, there’s a sense among Tamils that they have no future in Sri Lanka. If they’re not going to be treated equally and freely, they would rather leave.”  Perera says it is no surprise most of those asylum-seekers who have so far agreed to return are Sinhalese Sri Lankans.

“Sinhalese know there will be no suspicions on them if they return. They’re adventurers looking for better lives. They have their homes, their families to return to. Most Tamils are too frightened to return to Sri Lanka,” he says, and they will exhaust all avenues of appeal rather than return to an uncertain future.

It is unclear whether, three years after the end of the war, so many Tamils with stories of families lost and homes destroyed still qualify as asylum-seekers under the 1951 UN refugee convention, which requires applicants to prove a well-founded fear of persecution. That, says Frederika Steen, is for Australian Immigration officials to decide. A former Australian Immigration Department official herself -and a Centenary medal-winner for her subsequent work with refugees – Steen believes the government’s new policy of depriving non-genuine asylum-seekers of the right to work will eventually stop people such as Fernando – even if Australia has seen a record 3200 arrivals since the offshore policy was introduced on August 13.

She agrees the message to economic refugees should be tough.

“If you’re not a person who has suffered genuine persecution, you will never get a work permit in Australia and should go home,” she tells The Australian. “We can screen them out and this is what’s happening when they arrive onshore and are interviewed.”

She worries the revived Pacific policy unnecessarily punishes those who do have a rightful claim to asylum.

Another refugee advocate, Pamela Curr, cites a recent text message conversation with an Iranian refugee in Indonesia who, like thousands of others, is waiting to board a boat for Australia

“When I asked him if he had seen the ‘No advantage’ DVD from the government (part of a new information campaign to dissuade asylum-seekers), he said: ‘I saw that film. If Nauru (is) like this, people (will) come more than before,’ ” she says.

Asked what he meant, the Iranian man replied that the Australian offshore processing camp in Nauru looked vastly preferable to Indonesian detention, and that Australia at least was taking responsibility for the welfare of asylum-seekers.

Richard Danziger knows it will not be easy to dissuade Sri Lankans — sea-faring people with a history of successful irregular migration — from trying the Australian asylum route in the short term. The head of the International Organisation for Migration in Sri Lanka has been charged with spreading the word of Australia’s new offshore processing policy in vulnerable communities.

IOM staff have begun approaching community leaders in the Catholic fishing villages of Negombo and Chilaw to tell people there is now little chance an asylum-seeker will reach Australia, or be able to earn money while awaiting a decision. Family reunions will be more difficult.

It should be a big turn-off for many.

Yet Danziger was in Indonesia for the IOM in 2001 when an obscenely overloaded asylum-seeker boat, known as the Siev X, sank in Australian waters. Some 353 people drowned — mostly women and children who no longer qualified for residency under the previously tightened family reunification policy. Only 45 people survived that awful tragedy and, of those, Danziger recalls at least half insisted they would try again.

What message could possibly dissuade such a determined asylum-seeker? “This is really seat-of-the-pants stuff,” he concedes. “We’re preparing leaflets, we will reach out through associations, churches. We also want to get out there and listen to people.”

A quick sampling of people on the main street of Chilaw confirms he has his work cut out for him. At a rickshaw stand outside the town centre, some drivers tell The Australian they’ve heard nothing of the new policy but “everyone wants to go to Australia”.

It used to be Italy until the Italian government cracked down on the people-smuggling trade about seven years ago, stationing its own sea patrols in the Suez Canal and closing immigration loopholes and family reunion laws.

The Australian government hopes its tough new measures — together with the $3300 resettlement package — will have a similar deterrent effect. The problem — both for the trailbreakers who accepted the deal and for a government desperate for more to follow their lead — is the money comes slowly, with too many strings attached.

Seven of the first 18 Sri Lankans who agreed to return late last month will not receive the assistance after they were classified as crew. Two of the men say they merely agreed to take the wheel while the captain slept and they were offered the resettlement package in Christmas Island only to have the offer rescinded in Colombo.

Word that Australia reneged on its promise is spreading quickly. So is rising anger that the assistance will take months to come. Fernando says he is desperate for the funds. “I need new nets urgently as this is the season for lagoon prawns,” he told The Australian from his modest shack in Negombo. “It will not last long. When other fishermen are catching eight to 10kg of prawns, I catch only one or 1 1/2 kilos, which is worth only $4 to $7.” Meanwhile, interest mounts daily on his loans.

Thaminder Lakmal returned to Sri Lanka on the same plane as Fernando. With a wife and one small son, his financial situation is not as desperate, though the 29-year-old – -who 10 years ago made a similarly unsuccessful asylum bid for Italy — says he has been ostracised by his parents since his return.

In his heart, he knows he had little choice. “I can’t stay without a job for several years when my family is here with no money,” he says. Yet he is tormented by doubt. Only four of the 24 people on his boat agreed to return and not all asylum-seekers were treated equally.

“There were seven Tamils on our boat and all of them were sent to Nauru as soon as we got to Christmas Island,” he says. “It’s confusing us why they did not send us to Nauru as well. Three times our boat nearly sank and we had given up all hopes. Now I think I took such a big risk on a dangerous journey, why did I come back?”


Web Editor’s Comments:

This is a useful news item.

  • It indicates that the vast majority of those who accepted the Australian government’s inducements have been Sinhalese, who discovered that the Tamil asylum-seekers were likely to be more favourably viewed.
  • It suggests that that the Australian authorities were less than honest in the promises held out – especially for those deemed boat crew.
  • Hodge states that the asylum-seekers had access to jobs, albeit lower-paid jobs, from the outset. This is news to me: the initial period of detention in Christmas Island could be quite substantial as far as I know. So how did Joseph Fernando have the notion that he could send money back to Sri Lanka for his family in rapid-quick time?
  • If Hodge is incorrect on this point, then Fernando and others were casting their chances as asylum-seekers on the basis of massive ignorance. Or, he had extended familial resources to sustain his family for a while.
  • So the issue is whether these men are taking Amanda Hodge for a ride – at least in in some measure? That they have lost their investment is certain; but are they totally without economic support from kin folk?
  • Without having studied the enormous amount of work done in the IDP camps by NGO, INGO and government functionaries –a good many of the former Tamil – Hodge is quite bold, even arrogant, in pronouncing a verdict on the conditions therein. She would do well to chat with the personnel in such agencies as Caritas, CHA, SEED, Sewalanka, Sarvodaya, et cetera who worked in Manik Farm and the school camps in Vavuniya District.. The Setunga reports in thuppahi would be one starting point.
  • Jehan Perera’s emphasis on the sense of alienation among Tamils in Sri Lanka is a significant point that is not without grounding –guide d here bysome threads of information I have received from another scholar. But the degree to which one can generalize on this point must be held in view – especially with reference to the 285,000 or so people who were put through the mill in 2008-09 by the LTTE because they wanted a bargaining chip, labour pool and protective shield.
  • These were the people who were kept in the segregation camps at Manik Farm and elsewhere. Those from Keppapilavu were clearly among those kept the longest because their home territory was in an area that required mining or had been delimited as military base. They would seem to have cause for protest for the way they are being re-settled without compensation or adequate resources. However, one swallow does not make a summer of discontent and we are in need of comprehensive studies of the re-settlement process throughout the northern Vanni rather than selective highlights provided by those with axes to grind.
  • The article also ends by striking a favourite Australian note via the voice of a Lankan returnee. It reveals a standard viewpoint among most Australians. The boats that bring asylum-seekers are deemed “leaky” and unsafe.” To be sure there have been a few outstanding cases of mishap. But is this generalization valid?  We need statistics on how many boats have made it across to Australia from Indonesia, India and Sri Lanka separately so that the figures can be compared with those that sank or floundered. My impression is that a high percentage of boats from Lanka have made it across the seas safely. But it is a surmise not a definitive assertion.
  • Finally, readers should take note of an earlier sob-story presented by Amanda Hodge, one penned exactly three years ago on 10 October 2009 after she interviewed Stanley Warnakulasuriya and a few others  and through their tales focused on 12 Sinhala Catholic fishermen who decamped with a boat in October 2008 and made it safely to Shark Bay in Western Australia, where they ditched the trawler. The claimed asylum on the ground that they faced threats from both the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE. One of their advocates was Pamela Curr, whose business is entrenched in what one can call “human rights victims” and to whom every allegation seems plausible. Their cases failed however and they were deported to Lanka at Australian expense.  Hodge showed commendable initiative then in 2009 in finding one or two of these men in Sri Lanka after their return, where they allegedly lived in fear. The question NOW, three years later, is why Hodge has not pursued their history with equal enthusiasm to tell us whether those claims of danger (from boat owner and government) were justified. But, then, supposing they were making a living of some sort today that would not be a sob story.
  • Though I was born and bred near the sea it is news to me that Sri Lankans are a “seafaring people.” Most Lankans cannot swim. But this is a minor quibble … there are far more significant issues and much useful data in this news item.
  • … especially when it is set beside THAT of October 2009.

AMANDA HODGE: “Sri Lankan boatpeople home and scared” The Australian, 10 October 2009

IT is hard to know whether 12 Sri Lankan fishermen had a reasonable fear of persecution when they set course by boat for Australia last October, leaving 50 fellow asylum-seekers and a murderously angry boat owner in their wake.  But there’s little doubt serious trouble awaited them on their return to Sri Lanka this week. Twelve months after their ill-fated trip, one of them is in a Sri Lankan jail on people-smuggling charges, five more are in hiding in Sri Lanka, and the rest are battling to avoid being extradited from Australia.

The 12 had set sail from Sri Lanka on a month-long voyage to Western Australia, taking the boat of a people-smuggler as they waited offshore for him to load more asylum-seekers on to the vessel. The men took a chance that the anger of the boat owner was preferable to capture by the Sri Lankan navy and certain jail in a country where illegal migration is tantamount to treason.

But in the living room of a sympathetic neighbour on Sri Lanka’s west coast, where four of the six returned men have agreed to meet, they say they are now caught between the influential boat owner, who has threatened to kill them, the Sri Lankan police, who could arrest them at any time, and the money lenders who are looking for a return on theirinvestment. All 12 have debts they cannot meet after paying the boat owner between 100,000 and 200,000 rupees ($965 and $1930) each, and feel a sense of shame at the nature of their return.

“People here were very jealous when we left,” says Stanley Warnakulasuriya, a 36-year-old fisherman and father of three young children. “They thought we would make big money and big houses. Now I am really embarrassed and ashamed. There’s the shame, the fear and the loans.”

On top of that is the powerful sense they have been thrown to the wolves after returning from Australia, where they spent months in immigration detention. “Everybody at Australian immigration said nothing was going to happen to us when we got to Sri Lanka. We pleaded with them not to return us,” says Sumith Mendis, an anxious-looking 29-year-old. Now my brother is in jail and when I go to see him I am frightened because they say they will take me as well. My brother is scared and says he can’t stay there. But the lawyer said he could be stuck there for three years.”

All four men, Sinhalese Christians from Sri Lanka’s mainly Catholic west coast fishing villages, say they sought asylum in Australia because they were being persecuted for their political allegiances. Their stories are variations on a theme; tales of political thuggery and financial hardship, exacerbated by the 26-year-long civil war between Sri Lankan forces and Tamil separatists which forced severe restrictions on the fishing grounds.

Mr Warnakulasuriya says the last straw was the death of his wife’s uncle who was killed alongside 37 other Sinhalese fishermen by Tamil Tiger rebels in northern fishing waters.

It’s difficult to know the truth of their claims. The west coast is a known jumping-off point for those looking to escape Sri Lanka and it is the Tamils who face the most severe persecution.

Less than two hours from biggest city Colombo, the region boasts the country’s international airport, a lovely stretch of coastline and pockets of improbably large Italianate villas built with remittances sent from those who made their fortunes after washing up on Italy’s shore.

So potent has the Italian influence been on this coconut-strewn patch of coast that one village, Wennappuwa, is now known as Little Italy.

It’s easy to see how a young family man might covet the seemingly easy wealth of his neighbours. Then again, it’s hard to exaggerate the potential dangers of living in Sri Lanka — an island nation as notorious for disappearances and extra-judicial killings as it is famous for its tropical beach resorts.

Whatever troubles the men had were compounded by their collective decision to leave Sri Lankan waters without waiting for 50 more paid-up asylum seekers, and a briefing from the boat owner, a Mr Kumar, about what to say if they were caught.

“We were in the sea for two days about 10km offshore, but we were scared the navy would catch us and put us in jail,” Mr Mendis explains. “We didn’t know where the others were coming from. Only the businessman knew. We didn’t know how it was organised or how risky it was. We just wanted to leave this place.”

The men were among the first of a fresh wave of asylum-seekers from the troubled South Asia region to wash up on Australian shores in the past year, and believe they were the trial run for Sri Lankan boat owners looking to extend their smuggling routes.

They joined eight Afghans in the Christmas Island detention centre in December, but in the months since then the population has blown out to 1000. Almost 300 of those were Sri Lankans.

This week they became the first of their countrymen to be sent back by the Rudd government, two by two and within 24 hours of each other, after exhausting their appeals for refugee status.

Their ignominious return coincides with the launch of a new Australian Customs Service advertising campaign along Sri Lanka’s west coast, which will include morality tales presented through street theatre, to drive home the message that illegal immigration is not worth the risk.

All six were immediately taken into custody by the Sri Lankan authorities, questioned for hours, and, they say, denied food and sleep.

Mr Warnakulasuriya and 17-year-old Janith Nimesh Silva, the first to return, say the Australian immigration official who accompanied them was warned of the hostile reception they would receive by a representative of the UN International Organisation for Migration, who was waiting for them at Colombo airport.

“The IOM man told the immigration official he should say he was from the IOM and not Australian immigration, otherwise we would definitely be arrested and we would be in big trouble,” Mr Warnakulasuriya says.

He claims the immigration official removed his badge and hid it because he knew what would happen to the Sri Lankans — something the department denies.

Thushara Warnakulasuriya, a nuggety man with a square passive face, says he returned voluntarily last Sunday after his final appeal was exhausted.

“I didn’t want to come in handcuffs to my family in disgrace,” he says. But he doesn’t sleep at home and is too scared to return to the tuna boats where he once made a decent living, after receiving death threats from the smuggling boat owner’s relatives, who are demanding millions of rupees in lost income from the 50 asylum-seekers they left behind.

“The businessman’s brother-in-law has threatened to abduct and kill us (if we don’t pay them the money). I got a threatening telephone call just yesterday.”

Thushara Warnakulasuriya says he has little option but to remain in hiding and eventually seek asylum in India. Stanley Warnakulasuriya and Janith Silva, who sought his mother’s permission before joining his older friends on the trip, say they were treated well during their 11 months in custody in Australia and hope to return one day.

Saddled with the biggest debt and least capacity to pay, Stanley Warnakulasuriya says he is “ready to take the risk of even dying” to reach Australia again. But Sumith Mendis says he can’t think of his future and is sick at the thought of his brother languishing in Negombo jail.

Indika Mendis was imprisoned on Tuesday after 36 hours of interrogation by Sri Lankan officials, who claim the 27-year-old was the skipper of the boat and the brains behind the trip. The family vehemently deny the accusation and say Indika Mendis has been framed by the boat owner, who has fled to Italy.


SEE FOR “UN raises alarm on asylum-seeker backlog”


Filed under accountability, asylum-seekers, australian media, discrimination, historical interpretation, IDP camps, immigration, life stories, people smugglers, politIcal discourse, propaganda, reconciliation, Sinhala-Tamil Relations, world events & processes

5 responses to “Sob Stories from returned Sinhalese Boat People…… with some chillie added by Hodge and Perera

  1. padraigcolman

    Will Frederica Jansz be travelling to Australia in a leaky boat?

  2. Pingback: Sinhalese Pirate Fisherman plus unknowns on their way to Australia as asylum-seekers? | Thuppahi's Blog

  3. Pingback: A “Fun Game” Illuminating Tales of Tamil Asylum-Seekers from Sri Lanka, Today… late 2012 | Thuppahi's Blog

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