Sri Lankan asylum seekers are being promised Australian citizenship, but for many it will be a voyage to their deaths, the Sydney Morning Herald reports today (15).
An international people-smuggling network is preying on Tamil refugees in southern India, promising them safe passage across the Indian Ocean and guaranteeing them Australian citizenship when they arrive.
But boats have already been lost. Refugee advocates say at least two boats, carrying up to 50 people, disappeared off the Indian south coast late last year.
Dr Gladston Xavier, a professor of Social Work at Loyola College, Melbourne, said the extensive trafficking network that existed among refugee communities in southern India was able to convince Tamils they would be quickly granted asylum.
''There is a false sense of belief that Australia will roll out the red carpet for them, even though, people should know Australia is not going to do that.
''These communities know of people that have been in immigration detention for four years, but they are told, they are convinced into believing, they will be accepted straight away,'' Dr Xavier said.
The past six months has seen a spike in the number of boats leaving Sri Lanka and southern India, bound for Australian waters. Already this year, 708 people claiming to be from Sri Lanka, many travelling in boats from India, have arrived in Australian waters. For the full year last year, the figure was 211, the newspaper further stated.
The United Nations estimates more than 140,000 Sri Lankan Tamils are displaced across 65 countries.
''It is not one side, this is international trafficking. These elements are cheating these refugees by promising to send them to Australia and taking their money. But agents from the Indian side can't plan everything - they must have contacts or agents on the Australian side, '' said the Kerala MP K.N. Balagopal.
''But there are some refugees who are being misled by a group of people who benefit from this human trafficking, said S.C. Chandrahasan, himself a refugee. They inform the people, who are gullible, that you will be able to make 100,000 rupees [$1800] a month, compared to 1000 rupees in India. One lady said she was told she would get citizenship on arrival,'' he added.
Typically, asylum seekers pay between 50,000 rupees and 200,000 rupees for a spot on board a boat. Some sell all they own, or borrow heavily, to pay a deposit.
Mr Chandrahasan said some of the recently caught refugees were on their second or third attempts to reach Australia. Some had attempted suicide over the debts they carry from family members' failed attempts to reach Australia.
Asylum seekers are not only going to Australia, but also to Canada and to Europe, seeking greater chances for education and employment.
Dr Xavier and Mr Chandrahasan said boats carrying asylum seekers towards Australia had been lost at sea. Two boats that left southern India last year have not been seen or heard from.
''We cannot confirm anything but those people are feared lost in the middle of the sea. Their relatives have heard nothing; we have to presume they were drowned,'' Mr Chandrahasan said.
Between 40 and 50 people were on the boats, Dr Xavier said.
The latest group stopped in India was 135 asylum seekers, including an 18-month-old infant and a 72-year-old woman, picked up on board a fishing trawler, off the Kerala coast near Kollam last week. A further 16 people were caught onshore.
The seized boat was overloaded and hopelessly underprepared for the journey, which usually takes between 18 and 20 days. There was some food on board, but insufficient drinking water.
Women and children were kept below deck in large iceboxes usually used to hold fish. When police found them, many were gasping for breath.
''These refugees were being held in completely inhumane conditions,'' the Assistant Superintendent of Police, Kollam, Thomson Jose, told the Herald. ''There was hardly a place to stand up on boat. Some would not have survived the 20-day journey to Australia.''
Indian Police inquiries have revealed that some of the asylum seekers have relatives who have already reached Australia. A 21-year-old, Selvi, pregnant with her first child, told reporters she fled for a better life.
Kerala, on the south-western coast of India, has become the favoured departure point for Tamils seeking asylum in Australia. They come from Sri Lanka to India, brought by people smugglers, or they have escaped from camps in Tamil Nadu, walking or catching buses westward to the coast.
They choose the distant side of the Indian subcontinent because its waters are less keenly patrolled than the eastern coast.
''These illegal migration bids from Kerala coast are a present phenomenon. It might be due to some successful attempts by which refugees were able to reach Australia,'' Mr Jose said.
''And the Kerala coast provides favourable conditions for these refugees due to availability of cheap boats and local Tamil support.''
Boats are also leaving from Sri Lanka. A boatload of 28 men was picked up off the east coast of the island on Tuesday. Police investigations led them to another 26 men, Pakistanis and Afghans, onshore.
Sri Lankan police on June 13 have stopped another vessel with 53 people, bound for Australia.