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Tuesday, June 19 , 2012 - 5.59 GMT
Thousands of dollars for an asylum voyage to nowhere


The boat is named for St Anthony and a Virgin Mary still sits atop the wheel house, but no amount of prayer would have saved this leaking death trap and its 151 passengers had Indian police not intercepted it barely a nautical mile outside Kerala’s Kollam harbour this month.

Oily water now fills the dark, airless fish hatch at the stern where dozens of Sri Lankan asylum-seekers bound for Christmas Island stood jammed like cargo on the night of June 4, an ordeal for which each had paid at least $3000.

The boat started leaking the day after they were offloaded by police, The Australian was told when it inspected the impounded -- now sinking -- vessel at Kollam port at the weekend. “They would never have made it,” says local police officer MC Presanthan. “The boat would have sunk and they would all have drowned.”

On the deck cheap plastic sandals, T-shirts, a toddler’s white frilly dress, all lie drenched and abandoned. Inspector Presanthan opens a second hatch closer to the foredeck and an army of gigantic cockroaches scampers out.

There are no toilets, no air vents, no lights, no beds and the stench is overwhelming. The blue-painted hull is divided into small pens, where fish would ordinarily be stored. Instead, it is where many of the 151 paying asylum-seekers were corralled, ordered to stand, and locked in when their cries of alarm became too loud.

Among them was an eight-month pregnant woman, six toddlers, an elderly woman who could barely walk. And a 31-year-old computer technology graduate named Raja.

“Nobody was allowed to sit down because it would take up too much space,” Raja tells The Australian when we meet in the Tamil Nadu capital Chennai.

“We were told we would have to stand for two or three hours until we had crossed the Indian coastline and then we could go on deck.

“Everyone was drenched in sweat. It became very bad. Children were crying and people were shouting so the agents locked the room so the shouting wouldn’t be heard from the shore. We were locked in for about an hour and it was unbearable.

“As there was no ventilation the children and elders were suffering breathing difficulty and I was telling people to not let their children go to sleep in case they died. At that point I thought even if I lose money I have to get out.”

Raja, a Sri Lankan Tamil who fled the country with his family 22 years ago for India, says it was his first attempt to seek asylum in the west. He was persuaded to do so by an unsolicited phone call from a former resident of his refugee camp where he lives with his wife and two toddlers.

By the time the phone call came, Raja was primed. For weeks rumours had circulated his camp, one of 112 across Tamil Nadu, that several residents had recently reached Australia and were on their way to citizenship. Denis, once a house painter like Raja, who left the daily grind six years ago to capitalise on his exiled countrymen’s misery, told his former neighbour he had successfully sent many Sri Lankans to Australia.

The journey would be difficult but the boat was large and sound, and at the other end there would be a mere 90 days in detention and then a bountiful future where Raja could get Australian citizenship and earn at least $3500 a month. “He told me it could accommodate more than 100 people,” Raja says.

In fact, the rusty vessel was made to carry 40 people and a cargo-hold of fish. Raja says he had no idea there were so many people on board.

“People were crammed into different compartments at different stops so we were not aware how many were on the boat.

“We were very uncomfortable but the agent was trying to put 15 more people on board. They couldn’t fit and the people on the beach were shouting that they had paid their money and had been left behind. That’s why we were caught . . . The agents must have known the police were chasing the boat so they jumped into the sea and escaped,” he says.

Before they did so they demanded more money from passengers, lying that they needed extra for fuel. Raja handed over jewellery -- his own, his wife’s, his children’s. It was all he had.

Yet he will not rule out a second attempt. “I have to risk myself to settle my family,” he says.

“I have lived in India for 22 years and I am still a refugee. Some countries, if you stay there for five years you become a citizen but that doesn’t happen here.

I can’t own land, so instead I will invest in trying to get to Australia to make a better life for my family. Should I live my entire life as a refugee?”

Raja suspects more boats are now leaving from India because asylum-seekers caught leaving Sri Lanka face stiff penalties. The blitz is part of an agreement with Australia to stem refugee numbers.

India’s Sri Lankan refugees attempting the same journey face no such penalties, just sympathy.

All but 27 passengers suspected to have made their way from Sri Lanka to board the St Antony have been sent back to their camps with no repercussions.

Kollam police commissioner Debesh Kumar Behra says police are trying to crack down on boats.






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Last modified: June 19, 2012.

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