As many as 150 Sri Lankan refugees are believed to have disappeared from camps across the Indian state of Tamil Nadu in the past fortnight, raising fears of another impending asylum-seeker tragedy in the monsoonal waters of the Indian Ocean, The Australian reported.
Police in the port city of Kollam in Kerala confirmed yesterday they had received reports of dozens of refugees missing from camps across the neighbouring southern state and were trying to determine whether another boatload of asylum-seekers had left in the past fortnight.
“We had information that around 150 people are missing from the camps and that they have not been seen for more than a week,” Kollam assistant police commissioner Thomson Jose told The Weekend Australian yesterday. “We have contacted all the hotels and lodges in Kollam but this could have happened even 15 days ago. We don’t have any confirmed reports of whether they have left or not.”
The news comes less than three weeks after police intercepted a fishing boat, carrying 151 Sri Lankans, one nautical mile into a three-week journey to Australia’s western-most territorial waters.
Mr Jose said no asylum-seeker boat could have left any Keralan port in the past week because the state closed its fishing grounds to all but the smallest traditional fishing boats for 45 days from June 15.
“In Kollam, we have closed and chained the harbour,” he said. “No boat can leave from here since June 15.”
Tamil refugee advocates from the Chennai-based Organisation for Eelam Refugees Rehabilitation said they were contacting officials in all 112 Tamil Nadu refugee camps to try to determine whether another boat successfully left India around the same time as the vessel intercepted on June 5.
Over the narrow Palk Strait in Sri Lanka, activists say they suspect at least one, maybe two more, boats were able to evade security surveillance this month.
Meanwhile, Coastal security agencies in Tamil Nadu have enhanced vigil along the south-eastern seaboard to curb clandestine ferrying of refugees to Australia and other countries, the Hindu reported.
Thursday night’s refugee boat tragedy off the Christmas Islands in Australia has further emphasised the need for strengthening surveillance mechanism as the Tamil Nadu/Kerala coast is prone to such unlawful migration. In the last three years, security agencies have intercepted at least 20 boats hired to ferry Sri Lankan Tamil refugees to Australia, police sources said.