Udappuwa, Sri Lanka. Two Sri Lankan brothers who joined a wave of asylum seekers heading for Australia were arrested at sea, thrown in jail and face an ongoing court case — but they say they will soon try to reach the country again.
Ramalingam Kandamoorthy, 35, and sibling Mahadevan, 31, from the remote hamlet of Udappuwa, had spent two days aboard a trawler in the Indian Ocean with 50 others when they were stopped by Sri Lanka’s navy.
The brothers, both fishermen, were arrested for illegal emigration and held in prison before being granted bail and returning to Udappuwa, 100 kilometers (60 miles) north of Colombo, to await their court hearing.
But undeterred by the setbacks and legal constrictions the pair refuse to settle back into village life.
“We will try to go again after the case is over. We just have to wait for some time,” Kandamoorthy told AFP at his hut made of palm leaves as he recalled his attempt in June to flee to a new life abroad.
His younger brother Mahadevan agrees.
“The future here is very bleak. We want to get out of poverty,” he said. “I can be a laborer or a cleaner in Australia.”
Neither of them speak English, but they were told that language was not a problem for the menial but relatively well-paid jobs available to migrants who arrive in Australia, often via Southeast Asia, and then try to claim asylum.
Another fisherman in Udappuwa, Shivanandan, 27, who only uses one name, said he wanted to make the perilous trip, which can take two weeks, but was unable to raise the 300,000 rupees ($2,300) required to pay people-smugglers.
“There are several families from this village who have gone to Australia and Italy,” he said. “They are doing very well. They have sent money to build proper houses, unlike our huts. They are not in debt.”
The Udappuwa area is ethnically Tamil, but the end of fighting between the government and Tamil rebels in 2009 after decades of warfare has failed to bring any peace dividend.
“Some of those who are leaving for Australia are actually trying to escape loan sharks,” Quintus Fernando, 56, a local community leader, told AFP.
“They charge five times more than commercial banks,” he said, explaining that most fishermen are forced to borrow money to buy their equipment because they do not have any collateral to take out loans from banks.
Fishing restrictions, a legacy of the decades-long separatist war, have also persuaded locals that the industry will never prosper and that they should try to migrate.
“It is three years after the end of the war, but fishermen are still required to get a ‘pass’ from the navy before setting out to sea. We can’t just row out to fish,” Fernando said.
Naval authorities insist that the checks are necessary to prevent the illegal boat traffic abroad.
One officer, who declined to be named, told AFP that asylum seekers head out to sea in small boats and then board larger trawlers that are run by smuggling rings.
Australia says 102 people-smuggling boats from various destinations arrived in the first seven months of this year, carrying a record 6,944 people, despite several fatal sinkings close to Australian shores.
After months of political wrangling, the parliament in Canberra on Thursday passed legislation enabling the authorities to send boatpeople to Papua New Guinea and Nauru to have their refugee claims processed.
“This move will deter boat people trying to enter Australia illegally,” Tissara Samarasinghe, Sri Lanka’s high commissioner [ambassador] to Australia, said on Friday.
Sri Lankan police spokesman Ajith Rohana said the spike in boat traffic was due to smugglers telling Sri Lanka’s Tamil minority that seeking political asylum in Australia was easy.
“It is unfortunate that these people are easily duped. They sell their property or mortgage their valuables to raise money for the boat ride and often end up losing everything, including their life in some cases,” Rohana said.
Official figures show that about 800 would-be asylum seekers aiming to go to Australia have been arrested by Sri Lankan authorities this year.
Sri Lanka has asked Australia to discourage further migration by deporting any migrants who complete the journey.
Naval officials visiting Sydney also said towing boats out of Australian waters, as proposed by Australian opposition parties, would not work because smugglers have often sabotaged vessels in order to force a rescue.
But many locals in Udappuwa said they knew the dangers and were still prepared to take the risk.
A woman who runs a tea kiosk said her husband managed to reach Christmas Island, an Australian territory some 1,500 kilometers (1,000 miles) from Western Australia.
He spent two weeks in a fishing trawler making the journey of more than 3,200 kilometers and was hopeful he could stay and work in Australia for a few years.
“He spoke to us on the phone. He is safe,” said the woman who declined to be named or photographed. “He went to earn some money so that we can have a better life here.”