Returned Tamil Asylum Seekers Today: A Jaundiced and Gullible Australian Reporter’s View

Greg Bearup, in The Australian, 31 October  2016, where the title isIn the Wash-Up Asylum Loser Wins” …. with emphasis in this presentation being t e work of The Editor, Thuppahi.

The crab-trapper of Jaffna is a happy man; he has a sturdy boat with a new Suzuki motor. Each morning he rises before dawn to motor out to a vast lagoon in his new auto rickshaw to fish for prawns and crabs — partly funded by the $5000 given to him by Australian taxpayers. In August 2012, when Marcus Pireesan fled Sri Lanka for ­Australia in search of a better life, Jaffna, the northern Tamil capital and his home town, was a very different place from what it is today.

marcus Pireesan with some of his childrenPic Greg Bearup

The long civil war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam ended in 2009 – a UN report estimating that 40,000 people died in final months of the conflict, mainly civilians – but the Rajapaksa regime, which brutally obliterated the Tigers, was still in power; young Tamil men were still being bundled into government vans and never seen again. “We lived in constant fear,” Pireesan, 40, tells me, “just knowing information was dangerous. You could be stopped at a roadblock and kidnapped (by the government forces) and no one would ever know.” And fishermen like him were told where and on what days they could fish.

The Tamils of the north lived in a totalitarian state within Sri Lanka and so Pireesan decided to flee, planning to bring his wife and three young kids to Australia when he had become established. It never worked out that way. Pireesan had to pay $8500 to a smuggler — $3000 upfront, with the rest to be paid upon a successful landing and getting work.

Hundreds of Sri Lankans have perished on this journey, and he almost did too when his boat, with 51 people on board, ran into trouble off the coast of Sri Lanka and began taking on water. It limped back to port after Pireesan and 17 others were offloaded to another asylum vessel, also en route to Australia. The sea was extremely rough and the boat was running low on fuel, water and food, but after 23 days on the Indian Ocean it was spotted by an Australian vessel off the Cocos Islands and rescued. “We were too much looked after, as you would look after a small child,” he says of the Australian officials. They gave them chocolates, fruit juice and fresh clothes and took them ashore. After two days on Cocos he was flown to Darwin for processing, then to Brisbane where, he says, he was issued a bridging visa.

aatgs–Thiya Garajah Sabesan, 22, and his father, N. Thiya Garajah. Picture: Greg Bearup

For a while he lived in Wagga Wagga, working in a meat-processing factory and waiting for his future to be decided. In 2014 his refugee status was rejected. In June last year he appealed to the Supreme Court. The application was rejected again. Better to come home freely, he reckoned, than in handcuffs. So he flew back to Colombo.

According to the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, between September 2013 and this month, 320 Sri Lankans who had arrived by boat were sent home. Half agreed to return — like Pireesan, they had run out of options. The other 160 were “involuntarily removed”. On top of this, “six people-smuggling ventures have been returned to Sri Lanka with 105 people on board”.

What became of them? Human rights lawyer Lakshan Dias has represented many of those 425 Sri Lankans who have been sent back from Australia. He says he knows of cases where people have been jailed for many months after falsely being identified as “organisers’’. However, most had been released within a day or two of arriving back in Sri Lanka. A few were “roughed up’’ but he did not know of any cases of torture.

The three returnees The Australian spoke to all said they were well-treated by Australian authorities and not ill-treated by Sri Lankan authorities upon their return. None of them has been persecuted since they got back. One of the men, 22-year-old Thiya Garajah Sabesan, arrived on Cocos Island as a 19-year-old in November 2012. He was flown home to Sri Lanka 10 days later. He admits that he was trying to get to Australia for economic reasons, rather than fleeing persecution.

He is studying to be a quantity surveyor and is stuck in a legal limbo that is due more to lethargy on the part of the Sri Lankan police, rather than active harassment. Every six months he has to return to court in Negombo to answer a charge of leaving the country illegally. It is an eight-hour train journey and each time the matter is adjourned because the police have not bothered to turn up to present a case. He is forever on bail and is unable to leave for India, where he would like to do further studies. His family is also thousands of dollars in debt after paying the people-smugglers and had to take out a mortgage on the family house. In Tamil culture, the son-in- law is usually given the family house as a dowry. His sister has not been able to marry because of the large mortgage.

The other two men, Pireesan and another fisherman, Emmanuel Luxan, 37, returned to Sri Lanka willingly — when their options for appeal had been exhausted — and with money. Under a scheme funded by the Australian government, both men had their air tickets paid and received about $5000 through the International Organisation for Migration on arrival at Jaffna.

Luxan says he used most of his money to pay off his debt to relatives, who had helped finance his trip to Australia. But he still had enough money to buy an outboard motor and some fishing nets and is saving to buy a boat. He returned in May this year and now works as a deckhand on another boat, earning about $5 a day. Life is tough but he says he is not in danger — he just regrets wasting all those years trying to get Australian citizenship.

Pireesan, on the other hand, is pleased he returned. Because the boat he set off on didn’t make it to Australia, as agreed, his family refused to pay the people-smugglers the remaining money. He has used the $5000 to set himself up as a fisherman and is very happy to be home with his wife and three young children.

He tried to make it to Australia, but failed, and he accepts the decision. Like playing cricket and being given out by the umpire, I say. “Yes,” he says. “Yes,” and he raises his index finger to signal out. “Australia is a very nice country, they look after us too much,” he says. “I would liked to have stayed and brought my family over, but it wasn’t to be. They cared for us very well. I bear no grudge.”

But life is good too in Jaffna, he says. His wife has a job as a teacher and he is loving being back on the water in his new boat. “I am very happy,” he says, as the little boy who was just three months old when he set sail crawls all over him. “Very happy to be back with my family.”

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For some literature –which, needless to say, Greg Bearup has not seen, much less studied, see

July 30, 2012 · 11:56 pm |

A Flourishing Bibliographical Tree: Tamil Migration, Asylum-Seekers and Australia

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