Saturday, 3 August 2013 00:27
By Charles Haviland
BBC News (Batticaloa): On a beach in the midday breeze fishermen stitch their nets and smoke, waiting for the wind and weather to turn favourable.
But by night such beaches have witnessed something different: the departure of boats crammed with people seeking new lives in Australia.
Since the civil war ended in 2009, thousands of Sri Lankans, especially Tamils, have fled the country from points around the coast.
But Canberra recently introduced much tougher immigration rules and has forcibly deported planeloads.
Those the BBC met are scared and do not want to be identified. In a desolate grove of palmyra trees, I meet Dilip, 21, a Tamil man.
Last September he pawned his grandmother’s jewels to pay $9,000 (£5,800) to an agent. He got into a small boat with 100 other men to escape Sri Lanka.
He says pro-Government armed groups had killed his grandfather, extorted money from his family and threatened him for campaigning for the main Tamil party during provincial elections.
But the 19-day journey, which took them to Australia’s Cocos Islands, was terrible.
“Near Indonesia there were heavy winds and the boat almost capsized,” he says. “We had no food or water for three days. It was a tiny boat.
“The skippers would beat us. They would shut us inside the fish-cooling compartment for hours a day. There was no space to breathe or sit properly.”
Dilip has a sheaf of documents detailing his plight. In one letter a pastor testified to sheltering him in his church because of the threats he faced.
But Dilip says the Australian officials – in Darwin, the northern city to which they were flown – ignored his papers and, after 25 days, deported him and 16 others. He says they were given only cursory interviews and subjected to degrading body searches.
Last August Australia toughened its immigration rules to speed up assessment and deportation of asylum-seekers. It has now announced that all “boat people” will be transferred to Papua New Guinea for assessment, and they will have no chance of settling in Australia.
Australia says its asylum policy is fair. But human rights campaigners say many asylum seekers are interviewed without access to legal advice and that returnees to Sri Lanka face many possible dangers.
Plying the Batticaloa lagoon are fishing boats of the type used in the people-smuggling operations – small, cramped, uncomfortable vessels.
Despite severe overloading, 6,400 Sri Lankans reached Australian territory in them last year. But there have been many accidents, with boats capsizing and asylum seekers drowned.
Economic problems are a major factor driving Sri Lankans – including Tamils, Sinhalese and Muslims – into the hands of the smugglers.
Despite visible reconstruction work in mainly Tamil Batticaloa – a brand new bridge across the lagoon and bulldozers working on new projects – there are not nearly enough jobs.
“Most are going because of their debts here. The war has destroyed the economy, and infrastructure is destroyed, especially agriculture and fisheries,” the head of an NGO consortium, Varunakulasingham Kamaldhas, told the BBC.
But he says many Tamils also perceive threats to their security, worried the government still seeks to avenge their past connections with the Tamil Tigers, however tenuous.
At a lonely Hindu temple, the BBC met Ravi, a man in his 40s who left on the same boat as Dilip because of political threats and was deported with him.
He accuses the Australian authorities of ignoring his explanation of the threats to him.
Like his fellow deportees, he spent three days in a Sri Lankan jail on his return before being freed on bail.
He used to work as a salesman but cannot now find a job as the police have a file against him for leaving Sri Lanka illegally. “I’ve lost everything as a result of leaving and getting deported,” he says.
“I recently got a letter from the pawnbroker saying, this is your last chance to pay the interest and get back your wife’s jewels. I have no way of doing that. The police have a whole file on me. I feel suicide is my only way out.”
Both Ravi and Dilip face regular court hearings for going abroad illegally. Meanwhile, their neighbours taunt them for getting deported and failing in their big gamble. Ravi’s two young children are teased in school.
Dilip says the police often ask his neighbours about his activities and whether he might be linked to any armed group, despite the demise of the Tigers. Both men live in limbo and partly in hiding, saying they fear abduction by pro-Government elements.
Hot political issue
The Government denies posing any such threat or torturing returnees, as is alleged by groups such as Human Rights Watch.
Some civil society groups and Tamil MPs have recently alleged that figures in the government, army or navy are colluding in the people-smuggling racket to make money or deliberately reduce the Tamil population.
One such group told the BBC it had spoken to an agent who named a specific military brigade as being involved. In April a newspaper, The Island, said police were investigating the alleged role of “security forces elements”. But the police later denied this. The navy has done the same, and points to the number of boats it has intercepted.
The Government of Australia – where immigration is a hot political issue – has meanwhile funded an advertising campaign in Sri Lanka, telling people not to succumb to people-smugglers or get on boats. Australia has forcibly deported 1,000 Sri Lankans since August.
As a result, very few are now trying to leave. Meanwhile, the boat people are jobless, penniless and stigmatised. They see no way out.