Lankans heading to Australia economic migrants: IOM

The International Organisation for Migration has backed Australia’s view that some of the Sri Lankan’s arriving by boat are economic migrants, not refugees.

The number of Sri Lankan’s trying to reach Australia by boat has increased by 25-fold over the past 12 months, from 211 irregular maritime arrivals in 2011, to more than 5,300 already this year.

The Chief of mission for the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) in Sri Lanka, Richard Danziger, told Radio Australia coastal security has “really been loosened up” by the Sri Lankan government.

“During the war and the months after it there were a lot of restrictions on fishing and so forth and that is no longer the case so boats can leave more easily,” he said.

Danziger says one of the factors driving Sri Lankan’s to board boats to Australia is their economic situation.

The IOM is working with the Australian Government helping repatriate the Sri Lankan’s who chose to return home rather than wait for years in detention centres in Australia or on Nauru.

He says many of those who have chosen to return to Sri Lanka voluntarily originally left their homeland in search of work.

“That is often what we hear, people tell us they were just seeking better lives,” he said.

Last week, Australia’s immigration minister Chris Bowen sent 26 men back to Sri Lanka who had arrived by boat, suggesting they were economic refugees.

“We have, of course, developed robust procedures for dealing with genuine claims for asylum, but we will not have people who do not have genuine claims to make be going through our system,” Mr Bowen said.

The men who have chosen to go home often return to tough financial times, often with large debts to people smugglers who helped them get to Australia.

Danziger says some are facing pressure from their own families to stay in Australia or Nauru and persist with their claims.

“I certainly know of one particular case of a guy who came back from Christmas Island and his family were very annoyed, saying he had given up, he wasn’t thinking of them, that he was weak etc etc and he was facing a hard time on his way back so I hink that must be the case for others,” he said.

The Australian Government is offering assistance packages worth several thousand dollars to those who return voluntarily and are not deemed to be members of people smuggling crews.

“What we did 10 days ago was get some of the returnees on a Skype call with some of the Sri Lankan’s on Nauru so they could tell their friends exactly what awaits them in Sri Lanka and that what they have been told in terms of the package is true,” he said

The IOM is also working with Australia’s Department of Immigration to warn people who do try to come to Australia by boat that they face being detained for a length period, without work rights.

Officials have been speaking with fishermen and religious leaders in some of the poorest costal communities trying to get the message out.

“It is very difficult to get that kind of message across,” he said.

“People generally believe what they want to believe”.

Richard Danziger says the upcoming monsoon season may deter some Sri Lankan from trying to reach Australia by boat but that it will be hard to convince those who are in search of a better life to stay put.

“Sri Lanka first of all is a country of migrants.One quarter of the country is abroad legally wether it is in the Middle East, Europe or Australia,” he said.

“The idea of migrating for work is not limited to a small number of people and the legal opportunities for working abroad are not enough to satisfy everybody so people resort to illegal means.

“The monsoon season …will certainly make it more difficult for people to leave and maybe that will be a window of opportunity for us to get the information out about it not being worth investing in a very risky journey”. (Radio Australia)