Published on Sep 5, 2011 by Luke Hunt
AsiaWATCH – The High Court’s decision to reject the Government’s asylum seeker swap deal with Malaysia was closely watched by Tamil refugees. Our reporter filed this dispatch from India.
Refugee advocates in southern India say that people smugglers and some Sri Lankan Tamils will be rejoicing at a recent decision reached by the Australian High Court.
The Court ruled the Gillard Government’s controversial asylum seeker swap deal with Malaysia unlawful, which has put into doubt about the future of off-shore processing – a policy principle also supported by the Opposition.
Many of the 72,000 Tamil refugees living in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu closely watched developments relating to the Gillard Government’s controversial asylum seeker swap deal with Malaysia. Tamil refugee advocate A Elamurugan says the High Court decision will result in more refugees attempting to make the perilous boat journey to Australia.
“People smugglers and refugees are very aware of what is happening in Australia,” says Mr Elamurugan, who has oversight of 36 internally displaced persons (IDP) camps in the Erode region in southern India.
“Refugees will definitely welcome this decision because for them it means they will be settled in Australia if they make the trip. For people smugglers, it means they can make more money.”
People smugglers have proved extremely successful at sending people to Australia by boats through what is known as the ‘Sri Lanka-India pipeline’. Since the end of the Sri Lankan civil war in 2009, Tamils have accounted for a large proportion of those asylum seekers who landed on Australian shores.
That success is in large part due to the Tamil Diaspora in Australia, according to Chennai-based journalist AS Panneerselvan. Sri Lankan Tamil refugees are keenly aware of the latest policy and legal developments thanks to their family and friends in Australia.
“There is a cross-class affinity in the network,” Panneerselvan explains. “This network passes on all the information that the refugees need to know.
“It is a porous information flow. Each element of the law is explained. They have known about the Malaysian agreement and watched it closely.”
The people smugglers will also be quick to begin readvertising their services in the 115 camps across Tamil Nadu, according to SC Chandrahasan, the founder of the Organisation for Eelam Refugee Rehabilitation (OFERR).
These people smugglers are Indians and within the IDP camps they usually have networks of sub-agents, who are also refugees.
“These sub-agents will very quietly approach people who are looking to travel to Australia,” Mr Chandrahasan explains.
“They will then do all the go-between arrangements, which protects the larger agent if anyone is ever caught.”
OFERR officials say that direct travel from Sri Lanka has become immensely difficult because of increased surveillance by its government. Refugees now either travel to south-east Asia by air, where they will then find a boat, or they will travel direct from India.
To pay for the trip, the prospective passenger will save money and sell every possession he owns. He – and they are mostly young men – will also borrow from friends and family, some Australian-based.
“Once they return to Australia they will then work to repay the cost of the journey. They will send the money back to the people smugglers,” says M. Sakkariyas, OFERR advocacy director.
Boat ventures are shrouded in secrecy to avoid the Q Branch’s camp intelligence officers discovering the plans, making it difficult to pin down the exact modus operandi of the people smugglers.
However, it is known that a refugee will usually pay a deposit of around two lakh ($4,300). Once he receives word of the impending departure, he will take a leave pass from camp officials and travel to a cheap hotel near the departure point.
“The passengers will wait at this cheap hotel until the vessel is ready,” explains Mr Sakkariyas. “Then, in the middle of the night, they will get on the boat and go to Australia.”
The dangers of travelling to Australia are widely known, and not just because of the Christmas Island boat tragedy, says Kolathur TS Mani, the president of Tamil political party Periyar Dravidar Kazagam.
“I have heard of three ships disappearing,” says Mr Mani. “We presume they have sunk. The last one disappeared nine months ago.
“But the agents also often steal money. I had one lady tell me that her son had lost one lakh ($2,150) to an agent, but the agent used a fake name so we could not find him again.”
Mr Mani explains that, despite the risks, people continue to want to travel to Australia or another western country, like Canada. The allure of ending up with a better life will always draw them in, he says.
“The camps are very unclean, dangerous,” says Mr Mani, a former LTTE supporter. “And the Indian government only provides each refugee with a meagre 13 rupees to live on each day.
“That is not enough to survive on. But they can’t return to Sri Lanka because they are afraid they will be arrested or killed. So they look to go to Australia or Canada or Europe.”
Other advocates, particularly those from OFERR, deny the poor conditions in the camps and it is difficult to verify the conditions, as even the UNHCR is not permitted entry.
According to the Mr Panneerselvan, whilst the Gillard Government’s Malaysia policy was showing initial signs of “stopping the boats,” it was an appalling agreement.
“It is clear that the basic seeds were laid by John Howard and Alexander Downer,” he says. “But these refugees are desperate to flee and nothing will stop them.
“It’s bullshit for the Australian government to invoke a reason like environmental issues or being too crowded to refuse to take a couple of thousand refugees.
“To refuse a refugee is to support their nation’s dictatorial regime.”