Phil Mercer, for BBC News in Australia, where the title reads “Australia asylum seekers find refuge in cricket”
Ocean 12 are sporting warriors like no other. Padded up and steeled for action in a suburban league in Sydney, the team is made up of Tamil asylum seekers competing for a place in the finals of a global cricket competition. The young men arrived in Australia by boat. They have been released from immigration detention on temporary visas and are waiting anxiously to hear if their refugee claims have been successful. Some bear the marks of conflict. Uthayakumar, a promising fast bowler, was hit by gunfire when his school was attacked and lives with vivid scars on his elbow. As well as the physical reminders of a troubled past, for others the psychological wounds also persist.
“No, I can’t go back to Sri Lanka. It is driving me mad thinking about it,” said 26-year old Stephen, who spent 18 months in Indonesia before paying smugglers to ferry him to Australia in October 2012. It took us 18 days by boat. The first few days were extremely hard. I was vomiting and didn’t eat,” Stephen explains through an interpreter. “I felt like I had a new lease of life when I saw the Australian navy and got to Christmas Island.” His is a life in limbo and deportation could be only a phone call away. Cricket has become an ideal way to relieve the stress.
“It helps them to almost feel that they are part of the community they want to be a part of,” said Deenu Rajaratnam, the Sydney league manager for Last Man Stands, which runs the global T20 competition. “Here they are getting a chance to actually live like anyone else on the field. They are equal, they are competing. They have the same chance of hitting a six, or a four or of getting a wicket as the opposition.”
The former inmates were held in custody under Australia’s policy of automatically detaining all asylum seekers while they undergo health and security checks. Stephen was incarcerated for five months at the Curtin immigration facility in Western Australia and on Christmas Island, an Australian territory in the Indian Ocean.
Mandatory detention began in the early 1990s and has bipartisan support. It’s a controversial policy that is lambasted by critics as unfair and inhumane, but conservative commentators believe it is necessary to safeguard the nation’s borders, and stop boat-people risking their lives trying to reach Australian shores.
“The government doesn’t want people coming unlawfully, and doesn’t want people drowning,” said Gerard Henderson, the head of the Sydney Institute, a respected think-tank.
“But we believe people should come in through the UNHCR system and not the people-smuggler system. There is a concern in this country about border security. There is not a concern about refugees coming here lawfully.
“Australia is unfairly presented as a racist country by some people, but anyone who lives or visits here knows that is not the case,” he added.
‘Regular guys’: At the Pearce Reserve in the Kings Langley district of Sydney, Ocean 12, named after their voyage to Australia’s northern waters, look like any other suburban team; a six is clubbed out of the ground, catches are dropped and there’s the echo of on-field banter.
As the runs tick over, watching from the boundary is Rob Stevenson, from Last Man Stands. He told the BBC that the young Tamils were helping to change attitudes. “You get some teams that are pretty rough, white Australians, and they’ve got a very negative attitude towards asylum-seekers generally. And we’ve had so much feedback from those other teams that playing against these guys and actually talking to them has really changed quite a few opinions about what asylum seekers are all about,” he said. “They just see that they are regular guys that love cricket like any other Australian.”
The team was formed with the help of the Blue Mountains Refugee Support Group. Its British-born spokeswoman, Anne-Marie Clifton, said that despite the uncertainties of daily life, cricket has had a soothing influence.
“These guys, when we started off, they really didn’t have much of a clue. They didn’t interact very well, and now they interact so well and they are so confident. They are laughing instead of really being quite shy, so it has really brought them out. We want another team and we’re hoping to get a girl’s netball team and a soccer team [for asylum seekers] going as well.”
Sport, and the camaraderie it fosters, has been a perfect distraction for Ocean 12. Their aim is to reach the Last Man Stands World Championships in Barbados next March. But ultimate victory lies beyond the game of cricket, and in the hands of the immigration authorities that will decide if these players can stay permanently and build a new life in Australia.