Asylum-seekers’ boat after two years

Saturday, 14 May 2016 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Image252962It’s very rarely that Sri Lanka gets any form – favourable or unfavourable – of publicity in Australian media after the war in the north ended and the ‘boat arrivals’ (illegal immigrants referred to as asylum-seekers) has virtually stopped. Last week, however, the subject of asylum-seekers surfaced after many months. 

‘Asylum-seekers secretly flown back to Sri Lanka’ was the headline used in the World News page of ‘The Weekend Australian’ to relate the story of a wooden boat carrying asylum-seekers being intercepted off the coast of Cocos Islands and were secretly flown off the island on a charter flight to Sri Lanka. The news report quoted “a witness on the island” as saying that he counted about 18 adults and seven children, “who appeared to have been transferred to a boat tender and transported to the jetty at West Island”. 

“They were placed in five vehicles with the windows covered by sheets. The police convoy drove directly to the island’s airport, where the group was seen boarding a chartered Airbus plane with an Australian flag,” the news report said. While saying that a spokesperson for Immigration Minister had refused to comment on the incident, the newspaper reported that it was the first batch of asylum-seekers to arrive in Australia after 2014. 

“Flight records show a plane departed from the Cocos Islands on Thursday night and landed in the Sri Lankan capital Colombo yesterday (Friday). The plane had the same registration number as the one photographed by locals at the Cocos Islands airport,” the report said.

It added that the nationality of the boat occupants is unknown, but witnesses had said that they appeared to be of South Asian origin. The fishing boat had been spotted by a Cocos Island ferry and intercepted by authorities four days before they were flown back.

Referring to the situation at the height of Australia’s boat arrivals, the newspaper stated that it was a common route for boats to travel from Colombo to Cocos Islands, a 280km journey that is two days shorter than reaching the next Australian island Untitled-1protectorate of Christmas Island.

Cocos Islands is a territory of Australia located in the Indian Ocean and approximately midway between Australia and Sri Lanka. West Island is the capital with a population of around 120 and is one of the two inhabited islands (out of two atolls and 27 coral islands) – both having a population of about 600. 

Quoting Mahishini Colonne, Spokeswoman for the Sri Lankan Ministry of Foreign Affairs, ‘The Australian’ said that the Sri Lankan authorities were trying to determine where the asylum-seekers had come from. “We are trying to determine if they are actual Sri Lankan nationals or if they are people of Sri Lankan origin who have got on this boat from elsewhere.  As you know, there are people of Sri Lankan origin from India and other locations, who have in the past travelled this way and have been returned,” she had said.

The newspaper quoted Jehan Perera, Executive Director of the National Peace Council as saying that all asylum-seekers would be questioned about how they got out of the country and it would be an intimidating experience for them. “Because we still have not eradicated third-degree methods – torture – from the culture of our security forces, and even from the country at large, several of them are likely to experience that type of questioning; third degree type of questioning, with an element of torture, may be,” he had said.