A foiled illegal immigration bid has highlighted how Sri Lankan Tamil refugees languishing in Tamil Nadu’s Government camps continue to be duped by racketeers with promises of a better life in Australia, The Telegraph newspaper in India reported.
A senior police officer said the local and Lankan agents of a human trafficking ring exploit the refugees’ reluctance to return to Sri Lanka and their desire to escape the poor living conditions in their Tamil Nadu camps.
Activists working with refugees said the agents lure the refugees with offers of a sea trip to Australia at Indian Rs 1 lakh per head. They are told that asylum is a certainty once they reach the transit camps on Australia’s Christmas Island.
On June 2, the group of 28 from four refugee camps were caught while on their way to the Pulicat Lake, a lagoon between Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, in two vans with a bike-borne escort.
They had been told they would be posing as tourists taking a boat ride on the lake before being shifted to a vessel on the coast, which would eventually drop them at Christmas Island.
The coastal police arrested the van drivers and the escort – allegedly an agent – along with the 13 male refugees. The women and children were sent back to their camps.
“We suspect some agents collect the money and tip the police off while transporting them to the pick-up point,” said S.C. Chandrahasan of OfERR, an organisation that works for the rehabilitation of the Lankan Tamil refugees living in government camps in the state.
The racket began in 2002 with most of the Australia trips by Tamil refugees happening from Sri Lanka itself. Some 200 of them died when their boats capsized.
Another 1,600 reached Christmas Island only to be sent to detention centres in Nauru and Papua New Guinea under an arrangement these countries have with Canberra. The Australian government claims it has sent back some people.
The racket reached the refugee camps in Tamil Nadu in 2008 but most of the 400 or so who have attempted to leave the country so far have been caught before sailing or intercepted off Malaysia or the Andamans.
These refugees are usually warned and sent back to their camp after being kept in a police station for a few days. No prosecutions have happened. Only a couple of agents have been arrested but they have jumped bail.
Chandrahasan said the attempted trips to Australia had fallen sharply thanks to increased vigil by the Indian coast guard and the state coastal police.
He added that his organisation and the Australian government had warned the refugees they were not welcome in Australia. Still, some get tempted.
“There is no way that people who attempt to travel to Australia by boat will be allowed to settle in Australia,” Sean Kelly, the Australian vice-consul, recently told reporters in Chennai.
“Anyone who does survive the journey will be intercepted and transferred to regional processing centres in Nauru and the Manus Island in Papua New Guinea.”
Chandrahasan said the Papua government had recently announced that it would close its refugee camp on Manus Island under orders from the country’s topmost court.
“So, the fate of the 1,200 refugees in the camp has become even more uncertain,” he said.
Some 102,055 Lankan Tamil refugees live in 107 government camps across the state. Each refugee family is provided a dole, 20kg rice a month, ration cards to buy essentials and free education up to Class XII.
Many refugees who came to Tamil Nadu in the 1990s have studied here, got married and had children.
On the other hand, the camps at Nauru and Papua have basic amenities but none is allowed to venture outside. The one on Manus Island is virtually cut off from the local population.
Although the ethnic conflict ended in 2009, many are reluctant to return home, unsure they can earn a livelihood there.
The Indian arm of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has helped the voluntary repatriation of about 12,500 Lankan refugees between 2002 and 2014. This year, 315 have returned home so far.
A senior officer said the police had foiled at least half-a-dozen attempts to smuggle Tamil refugees out of the country in the past four years.
The DMK and the AIADMK have been demanding the Centre grant citizenship to the refugees who want to live in India. But Delhi has balked at the suggestion fearing similar demands from Assam, where the status of Bangladeshi immigrants remains a contentious issue. (Colombo Gazette)