By Ben Doherty –
ON A remote stretch of Sri Lanka’s west coast is the village that wants to come to Australia. The homes are low and squat, their thatched roofs tightly tied down against the monsoon. And from almost every one, someone has left for our shores.
Some have made it across, reaching Christmas Island and phoning home that they’re safe.
Others are caught before they can board a boat, or stopped and turned around by the Sri Lankan navy. Still others leave and are never heard from again.
‘‘Five hundred people have left from this village, from this area, all for Australia,’’ says Kajan*, waving his arm along the beachfront, a few hundred metres from a military watchtower. His son-in-law and a friend left a little over a month ago. They reached Christmas Island after three weeks at sea.
‘‘They went for money reasons,’’ he says, through an interpreter. ‘‘We cannot make a living here. They went so they could support our family.’’
Kajan insists that, three years on from the end of this country’s brutal civil war, Sri Lanka still offers Tamils no chance ‘‘to make a good life’’. ‘‘No job, no education, we have trouble from the police and army,’’ he says. ‘‘We are desperate people.’’
This year has seen a massive jump in the number of asylum seekers, overwhelmingly Tamil, fleeing Sri Lanka for Australia. So far in 2012, 1541 have reached Australian territory, a more than 700 per cent increase on all of 2011. More than 700 others have been jailed for trying to leave Sri Lanka ‘‘irregularly’’.
In the past fortnight alone, 334 people have been arrested trying to flee, Navy Commander Kosala Warnakulasuriya said.
Police spokesman Ajith Rohana said the massive jump in numbers was the result of a delayed and weak monsoon, which has made the Indian Ocean passage easier.
‘‘Ninety-nine per cent of these people are Tamils, almost all of them have some relations in Australia and their relatives tell them to come,’’ he told The Saturday Age.
But Mr Rohana rejected allegations Tamils still face persecution in Sri Lanka.
‘‘These people are told to give a bad image of Sri Lanka by the people smugglers who make money taking people across the ocean … It is not true.’’
The Saturday Age has chosen not to identify this isolated Tamil-dominated fishing village, its location or those we spoke to. The people fear government reprisals for speaking about the problems they face or their desire to leave their country.
Dharuna’s 27-year-old son left for Australia 18 days ago. He caught a bus in the middle of the night, then rang to say he had boarded a boat. She has not heard from him since.
‘‘Everybody else who left [from here] has reached [Australia and] has called, but he has not called. ‘‘Every day I am waiting.’’
Across the unsealed street, Gadin appears thin, tired and drawn. He is two days out of jail. He was caught on board a boat bound for Australia two months ago. He says he was interrogated for two days by the Sri Lankan police and then jailed for more than a month.
‘‘It was very hard, we slept chest-to-back, all packed in like sardines. I could not sleep and there was hardly any food.’’
His sisters got him out of jail, paying tens of thousands of rupees, but decline to say whom they paid and for what.
Economic opportunity, real or perceived, is a major driver putting these people from this village onto leaky boats. But some also allege systematic and terrifying persecution.
‘‘White van’’ abductions — reports of people being grabbed from the street by plainclothed men driving unmarked vehicles, to disappear for days, weeks or sometimes forever — are less common this far from the major cities, but people say they are regularly hauled in by police to face prolonged, sometimes violent interrogation.
The latest UN report on Sri Lanka says it is ‘‘seriously concerned about the continued and consistent allegations of the widespread use of torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of suspects’’.
But Mr Rohana says allegations of torture or maltreatment are untrue: ‘‘Generally, as a practice, torture never takes place in Lankan police stations.’’
Despite the current exodus, understanding of Australia’s process for assessing asylum seekers is poor. Many here are told asylum seekers will be granted citizenship on arrival, or that their claims are guaranteed to be accepted if they reach Christmas Island. Others say it is a matter of weeks before their relatives will be earning Australian dollars and sending them home.
Gadin, having tried and failed once, won’t try again. ‘‘I had my one chance to go, I have lost that,’’ he says. ‘‘But others will try in my place.’’
*Names of villagers have been changed throughout to protect the identities of those quoted.