Lankan Tamils perish in sea

Over 600 Sri Lankan Tamils have perished in the Indian Ocean sailing from the south Indian coast in sea-unworthy boats for greener pastures in Australia and Canada, says S.C. Chandrahasan, who heads the OfERR (Organisation for Ealam Refugees Rehabilitation), quoting from reliable statistics. Jul 10, 2012 – Over 600 Sri Lankan Tamils have perished in the Indian Ocean sailing from the south Indian coast in sea-unworthy boats for greener pastures in Australia and Canada, says S.C. Chandrahasan, who heads the OfERR (Organisation for Ealam Refugees Rehabilitation), quoting from reliable statistics. He must know since he has been efficiently running OfERR to take care of the thousands of the Tamil refugees who fled from the war zone in north Lanka since early 80s. “Families of these missing people have approached us pleading for help to locate them. The situation is tragic and hopeless. It is also hugely embarrassing because these boat people have been tutored by their unscrupulous agents to tell the Australian authorities that they were being treated very badly in the Indian refugees camps and so they had to flee to seek asylum, whereas the truth is that the Indian and Tamil Nadu governments have done a lot for us”, says Chandrahasan, whose father was the iconic Tamil leader in Sri Lanka known as Eezha Thanthai Chelva. “And a recent boat seizure found some Afghans too among the Sri Lankan Tamils”, he adds.

The Lankan Tamils have been undertaking hugely risky journeys, by land and by sea, for several decades in search of better living in Europe, Canada, Australia and other developed countries. The boat people mostly reached Christmas Island off Australia via Malaysia and Indonesia but the latest favourite has been Cocco Islands since it is the nearest destination from the Indian coast and falls under Australian jurisdiction. Ex-LTTE men usually handle these boats as they are well versed with these sea-lanes.

Thousands have died in these attempts while the human trafficking mafia made millions. Some have reached their destinations and managed to settle down to happy living, particularly with regard to their education and well being of their children, which in turn only attracted more asylum seekers from Sri Lanka and the refugee camps in Tamil Nadu. And many have been caught by the police and immigration authorities only to be sent back to either Colombo or the Tamil Nadu camps. The last such failed sailing got aborted off the Kollam coast in Kerala around midnight of June 3.

“It was a condemned trawler and 139 of us from various refugee camps in Tamil Nadu and a few from outside, were packed tight in the small hatch under the deck, where usually the fish catch is stored, to avoid detection by the authorities. In no time, we began to choke for want of air. We were lucky that the police caught the boat and opened the hatch to get us out gasping, otherwise we would have all died at sea”, said T. Nagarajah of Paramathi refugee camp near Namakkal.

The 31-year-old father of two little sons decided to risk the voyage in the hope of getting asylum in Australia “and then I could take my wife and kids there for better life”.

The agent was a Lankan Tamil youth known to him. The fee was fixed at Rs 1 lakh, half to be paid before the sailing and the rest on reaching Australia.

“I mortgaged my wife’s jewels to raise this money and now it is all gone. When we got caught in Kollam, our agent vanished. After some three days of grilling, the police returned me to my Paramathi camp. Now I have gone back to doing odd jobs as painter”, said Nagarajah, who holds a diploma in computer engineering.

Despite the host government being generous with doles and other facilities, such as education and healthcare, the inmates in these 111 refugee camps in Tamil Nadu find life tedious due to lack of growth opportunities.

“I tried my hand in the share market and lost heavily in the Paazee scam. It’s partly because of this Paazee loss that I decided to go to Australia to try for better life”, explained Nagarajah.

He is actually lucky that he had only lost money and did not lose life in that hellish fish-hatch of the condemned trawler. Rajendran of the Mandapam refugee camp near Rameswaram is not so lucky—he is still searching for his 21-year-old son who had boarded a similar Australia-bound boat from a point close to Chennai on July 22, 2010.

“My son Nirosh left by a boat along with 40 others, including a 10-year-old girl and her father. I haven’t heard from him since then”, said Rajendran, his voice choking. His latest effort to access information about the missing lad was the petition he presented to the Tamil Nadu Red Cross, which has been coordinating with its Australian counterpart to help such cases.

“We have received 37 petitions from relatives of men who have gone missing at sea while heading for Australia over the last one year. Of them, we were able to locate only one man while he was being shifted from one jail to another in mainland Australia”, said Red Cross general secretary M.S.M. Nasruddin.

Traffickers lure refugee camp inmates with package deals Human trafficking in Sri Lankan Tamils came to notice in India first with the arrival of Arumainayagam Soundarajan aka Rajan aka Italy Rajan, in Tamil Nadu in June 2009.

He had been sending asylum seekers from the coasts of Sri Lanka earlier and had to flee when the competitors turned the heat on and the security agencies in Colombo sniffed out his trail.

He landed in Rameswaram by a boat and launched business right away, taking advantage of the clamour for life abroad among the restive refugees in the TN camps. Until he came, human smuggling was not so much tested in the state.

Recruiting agents and sub-agents from the refugee camps, Rajan did a few sailings from the coasts of Mangalore in Karnataka and Kollam/ Kochi in Kerala.

He used to charge fees ranging from five to ten lakh rupees per person—now the rate has come down to between one to three lakhs—Rajan harvested plenty from the 111 refugee camps in Tamil Nadu (which housed about 68,000 inmates) and also among the 30,000-plus Lankan Tamils living outside on their own.

With the arrest of Rajan in April 2010, many of his agents started operating independently in TN and neighbouring states. They would offer attractive ‘package deals’ to the inmates of the refugee camps—like take a cousin along and you get concession on the ‘fare’, and you could pay half on reaching the destination. Often, some close relative already living abroad picked up the bill.

The temptation to make quick money saw some locals also entering the arena. The preferred launching points for these boats include Mangalore, Munambam (Kochi), Kollam, Kanyakumari, Nagapattinam, Cuddalore, Pondicherry, Chennai and Vizag (Andhra Pradesh).
A boatload of Lankan Tamils was caught off the Kakinada coast in AP last year. “While we manage to get many of these boats before they hit the deep sea, some manage to slip through. Their human cargo then is at the mercy of the ocean since most boats are unfit for the long journey”, said an intelligence officer, requesting anonymity.

After gathering enough number of asylum seekers and collecting the initial payment, ranging between Rs50,000 and Rs1 lakh, from each of them, the agents would scout for buying a fishing trawler, usually costing about Rs14-15 lakh.

Sources in the trafficking mafia revealed that the boats were usually procured in Kochi, Kollam or Kanyakumari. “Normally metal-bottomed boats are preferred as they would withstand the rough seas. Modifications are made to accommodate women and children by providing toilets, storage for food and drinking water, because a normal voyage takes over 20 days. Navigational systems such as GPS and satellite communication sets would also be taken. Ex-cadres of Sea Tigers are preferred because they are good at navigation, aware of the sea-lanes and are often asylum seekers themselves, so their services come free for the agent”, a source said.

“On reaching the coast of Christian Island or Cocco Islands, the drivers would damage the boat engine—to prevent being sent back to India—and anchor. The navigational equipment too would be discarded after sending a SOS to the Australian authorities. The Australian navy would arrive and after screening, would send the boat people to refugee settlement camps where they would stay for about six months. Depending on their good behaviour in the camps, they would be admitted into Australia”, the source said.