Hundreds of Sri Lankan refugees in India are risking their lives every year to make dangerous sea voyages to third countries like Australia after being preyed on by people smugglers.
Aid groups and the police have launched campaigns warning refugees of the perils of making such trips following a recent rise in reports of smugglers trying to entice people to migrate illegally. Most refugees settled in the southern state of Tamil Nadu where they live in camps. Aid workers say agents working for organized smuggling rackets are taking advantage of the refugees’ vulnerability, Reuters reported.
“They tell them that life is rosy in countries like Canada and Australia and that they will get good jobs with lucrative incomes,” Refugees Rehabilitation Organization Director S. C. Chandrahasan said.
“People then obviously get the wrong impression and don’t realize the hardships that they will have to undergo to get to those countries and get lured by the promise of a better life.”
Aid groups say they are particularly worried that many are putting their lives at risk to reach their dream destination - packed onto crowded ramshackle fishing boats for weeks in turbulent seas.
Sri Lankan officials in India said over the years thousands of refugees have tried to seek asylum in Australia and Canada.
“Some are sent back, some are languishing in detention centres and some who fit the asylum criteria have been granted permission to stay,” said Sri Lankan High Commission in New Delhi Minister Counsellor Sugeeswara Senadhira.
“The human smuggling racket is a very big problem as it is highly organized and involves people all over the world from India, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Indonesia among other places. But we are working with other countries to crackdown on this,” he said.
Reports are becoming increasingly common of illegal migrants dying at sea after their boats capsize.
Last month, 30 people died when a crowded refugee boat crashed into rocks on Australia’s Christmas island. Most of the refugees were from Iraq.
According to aid groups, there are around 73,000 refugees living in 115 camps across Tamil Nadu. The Indian authorities have been providing them with shelter, food, health and education services as well as financial allowances.
Over the years, children have been born in camps, refugees have married one another and many have gained educational and vocational skills in India.
Officials say while many have assimilated in India or are interested in returning to Sri Lanka now that the war is over, there are still many who believe their future lies in wealthier nations.
“There have been a lot of reports of agents hanging around the camps and approaching refugees saying that if they pay a hefty amount of money, they will prepare fake documents and passports and arrange their transportation,” said a police official in Chennai, capital of Tamil Nadu.
He said refugees pay up to 30,000 rupees ($ 660) to the human smugglers - a large amount for a refugee who does not have an income.
Social activists and officials say life is not easy for those who make it to another country.
Authorities in places like Australia and Canada, where there is a high migrant population, are under increasing political pressure to tighten immigration policies.
Last year, the Australian government decided to suspend asylum claims from Sri Lankans and Afghans.
In Canada, lobby groups are urging authorities to overhaul the immigration and refugee system, saying the influx of people threatens to overwhelm social services and drive up employment.
According to the latest Indian government figures, as of November 1, 2010, there are 70,354 Sri Lankan refugees living in some 112 camps in Tamil Nadu and 32,467 living outside the camps. In total there are 146,098 Sri Lankan registered refugees in 64 countries including India, France, Canada, Germany, UK, Switzerland, Malaysia, Australia, the United States and Italy.
In July last year, the UNHCR said, given the cessation of hostilities, Sri Lankans originating from the north of the country are no longer in need of international protection under broader refugee criteria or complementary forms of protection solely on the basis of risk of indiscriminate harm.
The UN Refugee Agency releasing its report on July 5, 2010, titled 'Eligibility Guidelines for Assessing the International Protection Needs of Asylum-Seekers from Sri Lanka', further said that human rights and security situation in Sri Lanka has improved.
'In light of the improved human rights and security situation in Sri Lanka, there is no longer a need for group-based protection mechanisms or for a presumption of eligibility for Sri Lankans of Tamil ethnicity originating from the north of the country', UNHCR report stated.