Monday, October 26, 2009

Lankan refugees in India seek exit permits, funds

Ramanathapuram, India: Many Sri Lankan refugees in camps at Ramanathapuram are seeking exit permits and funds from the government to return to their motherland at the earliest. Following the end of the war in Lanka, the internally displaced persons staying in various camps in that country are being sent to their native places. Therefore, many inmates of the Mandapam transit camp are anxious to return.
The United Nations Commission for Refugees was arranging for the repatriation of refugees after getting clearance from the government. However, it will undertake the repatriation of families and not individuals. Therefore, individuals anxious to go to Lanka to study the ground realities there before taking their families are expecting government assistance.
They need funds to meet their travelling expenses and also exit permit to proceed. Mandapam camp authorities told Express that the refugees had to wait for three months to get exit permits. ‘Q’ branch and other agencies should clear their applications before giving the exit permit.
So far, 169 refugees have returned to Lanka this year. Their numbers would increase if the government came forward to bear their travelling expenses. (Express Buzz)

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Among The Smugglers

By Amanda Hodge
The boat owners of Negombo have a message for the Rudd government: give us a year and a stack of cash and we can end the wave of asylum-seekers washing up on your shores.
“Without our knowledge no one can get into the sea,” Justin Warnakulasuriya boasts to The Australian as we sit in the front yard of his home. Dripping in gold and wearing a traditional lungi, the secretary of the Sea Street Kudapadu Conciliated Fisheries Society appears to carry weight in this fishing and tourist village on Sri Lanka’s west coast.
As we talk, some similarly bejewelled male visitors pay their respects, and a party of men sits inside eating fried fish and drinking Johnnie Walker Black Label.
Justin says he has already met Australian officials who have sought the society’s help in cracking down on the thriving people-smuggling trade operating along his patch. His Society has been promised dozens of life jackets, fishing nets and at least 200 chairs in return for spruiking the perils of the Indian Ocean crossing.
Micro loans and community grants
The Rudd government is also preparing to offer micro loans and community grants for job creation programmes to improve life for poor Sri Lankans at home to reduce the likelihood they will attempt to seek a better life in Australia. But the society wants more.
“They (Australian government) want to organise a street drama to show how dangerous it is,” he says, referring to the Australian Customs-funded advertising campaign being rolled out along the west coast to dissuade would-be asylum-seekers.
“There is a very good relationship between us and the (Australian) officials.“You can take my word: if the Australian government can assist us, help us to improve the economy, I give a guarantee not a single person will try to reach your country by boat from Negombo.”
The intriguing offer could well be more than an idle boast. Twenty-two fishing societies, essentially cartels of boat owners, control the industry along the length of Sri Lanka’s west coast and meet harbour authorities weekly to discuss market variations and local issues. They appear to be well-organised and well-connected.
People-smuggling trade
“It’s happening,” Justin says of the people-smuggling trade. “I totally admit that it’s happening with the consent of the harbour men.“But if anyone comes to us and says to us, ‘We are doing this (people-smuggling) because we can’t make a living,’ we can help by advising them of the risks and helping them to buy a boat or fishing gear. It all comes down to money.”
Populated mostly by Catholic Sinhalese fishermen and their families, the west coast has a rich history of Portuguese and Dutch settlement. A good proportion of the adult population speaks Tamil with greater fluency than Sinhalese, a product of their education in Tamil and Catholic schools.Although it is Sri Lanka’s Tamil population that has suffered the greatest discrimination at the hands of chauvinist Sinhalese-dominated governments in recent decades, most Sinhalese Christians who attempt the boat trip to Australia also claim political persecution.
Asylum refused
Warnakulasuriya Venses Fernando was among the first Sri Lankans, mostly Sinhalese Christians, to be sent home by the Rudd government this month after being refused asylum. The 39-year-old fisherman and father of three says he fled the country by boat in March, just weeks before provincial elections, after his campaigning for an opposition party caught the attention of local thugs who threatened to kill him.
But he tells The Australian he voluntarily returned from Christmas Island a week ago after authorities told him that as a Sinhalese man he had less than a one per cent chance of staying in Australia.
“The Australian government thinks only Tamils have problems in this country, but we are not an original Sinhalese community,” he says. “We are discriminated against by other Sinhalese because we don’t speak a proper Sinhala language. We’re very fluent in Tamil so they think we’re also Tamil and that we helped the Tamil Tigers smuggle arms and cadres through Negombo.”
Justin doesn’t buy it. “It’s a big lie. It’s a good reason to give to the authorities, but what has politics got to do with them? They’re fishermen,” he says.
High unemployment
He believes migration from the west coast is being driven by economics. The area is dogged by high unemployment and, like many port areas, is a hub for drug traffickers. During the 26-year civil war with the Tamil Tigers, it was also used by arms smugglers.
Sri Lankan people-smugglers appear to have taken advantage of the shipping routes forged by drug traffickers into Europe in the 1980s after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Islamic revolution in Iran and the Iran-Iraq war forced them to look for alternatives. But Justin says many people have since realised Australia is a better destination than the previously popular destination of Italy. “It’s under populated so they think they have a better chance of finding jobs there.”
He acknowledges drug smuggling is a problem in the region but says unemployment is the key issue.
High school graduate sons of local fishermen don’t want to follow their fathers into the fishing trade and see people-smuggling, or the passage to Australia, as a quick way to make money.
“There are people in Negombo who all of a sudden buy a boat, pay $US20,000-$US25,000 ($21,500 to $27,000) to an owner, and then approach individuals within the fishing society and offer as much as $US500 for every person they recruit,” he says.
“The passenger pays $US4000 for the trip. The agent takes his share and gives something to those who have helped along the way to introduce people. People have made their fortunes by recruiting for these journeys.”Justin admits he too has recruited for the boats, but later retracts that and says only that he knows of others who have done so.
“There are many people who are willing to go, both Tamils and Sinhalese, from all over the country,” he says. “Many Pakistanis are also going.”
Sri Lanka is not just an exporter of asylum-seekers. Thousands of Pakistanis — Christians, Shi’ites and adherents of the Ahmadiyya Islamic sect considered blasphemous by many Muslims — have sought safe haven there in recent years from alleged religious persecution at home.
Fled Pakistan
Shahid is an Ahmadiyya who fled the Pakistani city of Lahore for Sri Lanka more than four years ago. One of his sisters has since migrated to Australia and a brother to Canada, both via Sri Lanka.
But he has twice been denied refugee status by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and leads an uncertain existence with the rest of his extended family in a small village near Negombo.
With his latest six-month tourist visa due to expire this week, he faces little choice but to return to Pakistan or find another country that will take him.
The UNHCR has recognised only 50 cases of genuine Pakistani refugees in Sri Lanka this year and has another 170 cases pending. But Shahid says there are “many, many Pakistanis” in the Negombo area alone and many of them are looking to migrate elsewhere by any means possible.
“Sri Lanka is easy because you don’t need visas,” he says. “Going straight away, (Pakistani refugees) can’t go to Australia; they have to come here first.”Touting for passengers
Shahid has been offered places on boats numerous times by Sri Lankan friends who tout for passengers around Negombo’s local snooker club but feels it is too dangerous.
Not everyone is so easily dissuaded, however, as the stand-off this week between Indonesian authorities and 260 Sri Lankan asylum-seekers caught trying to reach Australia will attest.
Many on board that boat are believed to be Tamils who escaped the northern internment camps where about 280,000 civilians are being held behind barbed wire nearly five months after the government crushed the separatist Tamil Tigers.
Thousands of Tamils have already bribed their way out of the camps with the help of relatives living abroad. Many head straight to the Colombo airport and to the nearest countries that don’t require entry visas, usually Indonesia or Malaysia.
Paid Rs. 500,000
Balan is one such man. With the help of relatives based in Canada, Australia and Sri Lanka, he paid Rs. 500,000 to a Muslim, Tamil-speaking interpreter working at the Manik Farm camp in the northern Sri Lankan town of Vavuniya.
His sister Praveena (not her real name), who helped arrange the escape, said the money went mostly to camp guards and paramilitary men, who are allowed unlimited access to the camps.
The former bank manager, his wife and two daughters took a train to Colombo and hid with his sisters for several weeks before flying to Tamil Nadu.
Speaking by phone from Tamil Nadu through an interpreter, Balan said he was offered a place for himself and his family on a boat out of the north in the last bloody weeks of Sri Lanka’s civil war, when more than 200,000 civilians were caught between the two warring sides.
Close to 200 people eventually took that boat out of Sri Lanka. A vessel with the same number arrived in Australia a month later and The Australian understands many of those on board were granted asylum.But elderly relatives forbade Balan from going, fearing for the lives of his daughters, aged nine and 11, and out of concern for their own safety back in the conflict zone.
Refugee status in India
India has since granted the family refugee status, along with thousands of others, but without jobs there is little hope, and he is looking farther afield.Balan said he regrets not taking the boat places offered “because we have suffered so much since then.” His children missed a year of school and the family is haunted by images of dead bodies in the streets.
“He had a nice house, a good job, but he has lost everything,” Praveena said. “There are a lot of people like him in India now. People are just trying to go to any country that will take them.”
Balan has heard that boats are leaving from southern India ultimately destined for Australia, and says that if he gets another opportunity he won’t squander it.
“There’s no chance to go legally so I’m willing to go illegally,” he said.Amanda Hodge is The Australian’s South Asia correspondent.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

SL migrants in Australia asylum row: Plead for protection

MERAK, Indonesia, Oct. 23, 2009 (AFP) - The Sri Lankan asylum seekers at the centre of a fiery immigration row in Australia are pleading for rich nations to protect them from the threat of persecution, kidnapping and death at home.
Members of the group of 255 ethnic Tamils intercepted off Indonesia last week described harrowing weeks in the jungle and at sea in a bid to get to Australia.
But they said they had no interest in staying in Indonesia, where they have refused to leave their overcrowded boat for almost two weeks, unless they were allowed to speak to the UN refugee agency.
“This country cannot promise my children education, this country can't give us any future. What will we find in this country,” a spokesman for the group, who identified himself as Alex, told AFP on their peeling wooden boat in the Indonesian port town of Merak.
The migrants have gone on a brief hunger strike and threatened to torch their boat in order to draw attention to their plight.
The UN refugee agency says it has not received the necessary invitation from the Indonesian government to interview the migrants, so the standoff continues and the Sri Lankans' asylum claims have not been assessed.
“We are being tortured, our women are being raped, our children are being killed, our parents are being kidnapped,” Alex said of their migrants' lives in Sri Lanka.
“Just for the sake that we are Tamils they just believe we are all terrorists, we are all Tigers,” he said, referring to the defeated insurgent group known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.
The Sri Lankans have touched off a testy political debate in Australia over border protection amid a sharp increase in the number of asylum seekers arriving illegally by boat in the country's sparsely populated north.
Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono agreed in Jakarta this week to come up with a ‘framework’ for dealing with undocumented migrants who take to the seas in unseaworthy boats.
Indonesia is a springboard for such trips, which are usually arranged by people smugglers for thousands of dollars per person.
Rights groups have condemned Sri Lanka's detention of 250,000 minority ethnic Tamil civilians in military-run camps since the end of the country's bloody decades-long civil war earlier this year.
“We are rich people in my country, we all have big houses and farms, but we have no life there,” said 35-year-old teacher Kalla, as her two young sons gathered about her legs.
Alex, a former English teacher with an American twang thanks to a previous job in a call centre, said the migrants each paid 15,000 dollars to people smugglers and flew in groups from Sri Lanka to Malaysia.
Then they spent a month living in a makeshift camp in the jungle, with little food and water, before boarding their boat to Australia.
Tossed by waves and battered by rain in their bid to reach Australia's remote Christmas Island, the group was left in fearful limbo when the boat's engine sputtered out.
They drifted for five days in the Indian Ocean before it was fixed.
“The ship was shaking, the waves were big, everyone was vomiting, some fell unconscious,” said a 32-year-old woman who gave her name as Shanthi.
Five hours from Christmas Island, Alex said the boat did an about-face and set a course for Java island after a smaller boat failed to show up to whisk the captain safely back to Indonesia.
Alleged people smuggling kingpin Abraham Lauhenaspessy was found on board and arrested after the boat had been escorted into port by the Indonesian navy.

Canada releases one Lankan asylum seeker, 75 in jail

One of the men arrested aboard a small cargo ship off Vancouver Island last week has been ordered released from detention, but 75 others will remain in jail.
Tamil officials in Canada say the men were fleeing persecution in Sri Lanka after a long civil war.
The Immigration and Refugee Board wrapped up 48-hour detention hearings for all 76 late Friday.
No details are being given about the one person who was granted an order for release with terms and conditions, but there is at least one minor among the would-be migrants.
With the 48-hour detention review hearings now complete, seven-day detention reviews will begin Monday.
The men are being held at a jail in Maple Ridge, B.C., east of Vancouver.
Federal Immigration Minister Jason Kenney has said the RCMP are investigating the migrants to determine if any have connections to terrorist or criminal organizations.
The seizure of the ship that the men were aboard, the Ocean Lady, followed the interception of another ship en route from Sri Lanka to Australia a week earlier.
According to news reports, passengers aboard that ship identified the Ocean Lady as a smuggling vessel carrying would-be migrants toward Canada. (The Canadian Press)

Tamil asylum-seekers face death if sent home

Drew Warne-Smith October 24, 2009
Article from: The Australian
AN Australian citizen who escaped the largest internment camp in Sri Lanka earlier this year has warned that the Tamil asylum-seekers currently held in West Java could be killed should they be forced to return to their embattled homeland.
Muthu Kumaran, an ethnic Tamil and civil engineer from Sydney's west, was swept up in the renewed hostilities in Sri Lanka, having travelled there in February 2007 ahead of what he anticipated would be the establishment of an independent Tamil state.
Staying in the northern city of Kilinochchi, Kumaran had been working alongside a number of international NGOs when the Sri Lankan government withdrew from a ceasefire arrangement with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in January last year, and launched the final offensive to destroy the separatist militia.
Cut off from the capital, Colombo, in the southwest, he was forced to flee Kilinochchi in December when the city came under direct attack.
And by last May Kumaran had been detained in the military-run internment camp known as Manik Farm along with about 300,000 other Tamils.
The father of two escaped by paying a camp worker to smuggle him out, and he returned to Australia in August, just two months ago.
With the Australian government now scrambling to deal with the flood of Sri Lankan refugees arriving on our shores, Kumaran has chosen to recount his experience in a bid to expose the conditions in the camps and the plight of his people -- so many of whom are refugees in their own homeland. His travails in Sri Lanka are detailed in Focus today.
Kumaran insists the fears of retribution should Tamil asylum-seekers be forced back to Sri Lanka are very real.
Indonesian authorities intercepted a boatload of 260 people en route to Australia over a week ago and they are being held at a port in West Java. "People need to know, the international community needs to know, what it is happening in Sri Lanka," Kumaran told The Weekend Australian.
"The US, Britain, Australia, they talk about democracy and human rights. Well, they cannot keep their eyes closed to these things. "Of course we should take these people in. If they are Tamils they cannot go back now."
Fearing retribution from the Sinhalese community -- including towards his extended family back in Sri Lanka and elsewhere overseas -- he has asked to remain anonymous. Muthu Kumaran is an assumed name. During 5 1/2 months among the hordes of displaced Tamils inside Sri Lanka -- called internally displaced persons, or IDPs -- Kumaran says he saw numerous people killed by gunfire and shelling from the Sri Lankan military, including while the IDPs were travelling to designated safe zones as ordered by the ethnic Sinhalese government.
"Twice my pick-up got hit, but luckily not me. I saw maybe a dozen people killed, maybe another 20 injured, right in front of me," he says. "Every day, in the morning, I didn't expect to see the night time. That's the way it was for everyone."
Kumaran also knew of the death of four people from illness while inside the Manik Farm internment camp, while another committed suicide.
After eight days he was smuggled out late at night in the back of a van, and it would take a further six weeks before he could reach Colombo to fly home to Sydney.
But despite his ordeal, and the defeat of the Tamil Tigers, Kumaran remains confident that an independent Tamil state is within reach.
"(The Sri Lankan government) have only strengthened Tamil nationalism. They have not killed it."