Sri Lanka’s bitter ethnic conflict may be over but migrants are still trying to flee to Australia, in some cases only to end up right back where they started and a lot poorer.
Colombo (dpa) – Thirty-six-year old Vithiyalingam Lingarajan from former war-torn northern Sri Lanka always dreamt of living in Australia with his wife and four children.
A fisherman by profession, Lingarajan approached an agent who claimed that he could get him to Australia by sea, but needed to pay 1.3 million rupees (10,000 US dollars) for the passage.
He borrowed part of the money and pawned his wife’s jewellery to raise funds, but still short of money he agreed to pay the balance in installments.
In July 2013, leaving his family at home, he was taken by van to a sea-front house in southern Sri Lanka. He found himself with 68 others including six women, all of them minority Tamils who shared his goal of seeking asylum overseas.
“Shortly after midnight we were told to pick up our bags and prepare to leave. We were taken in batches to a small fishing boat waiting for us. That was to take us to the vessel waiting for us to be taken to Australia,” Lingarajan said.
“The vessel waiting for us was nothing but a rickety old fishing trawler. I was scared whether the vessel would survive the journey. I had worked on these trawlers as a fisherman and was well aware of its capacity.”
But there was no alternative if he wanted to realise his dream.
“The four-member crew told us food and water was available for the journey which would last two weeks,” Lingarajan said.
Just one day into the journey their woes started when the trawler started drifting in a different direction in stormy weather. Many others on board may not have understood, but Lingarajan said as a fisherman he was aware that the crew were struggling to get back on course.
“We were served broth made of rice and given a just a cup of drinking water after every meal. After just one week into the journey many on board had fallen ill, with some of them vomiting regularly. The only medicine available was painkillers meant for headaches,” Lingarajan said.
Halfway into the journey, Lingarajan feared whether they would be able to make it through the rough seas.
“I started thinking of my family and praying. I was questioning myself whether it was the right decision I had taken, but I had no option by now,” he said.
“Two weeks had passed and we were still at sea. We were running short of food and water. The broth was now given to us only during day time and we were starving for the other meals.”
Some 20 days after they left Sri Lanka they were eventually approaching their destination, raising the hopes of all those on board, but soon their trawler got wedged between rocks.
Hours later, most of them dehydrated, were rescued and taken into custody by Australian authorities.
“Most of those on board were unlucky as 42 people were to be deported immediately back to Sri Lanka. I thought I was lucky as they heard my case and decided to place me in detention on an island in Papua New Guinea, pending the processing of my asylum application,” Lingarajan said.
But as the months passed by he realized that any hopes of asylum were fading with no response to his application.
“I even got my mouth stitched in protest and stopped eating, thinking that the authorities will consider my application. That did not move them,” he said.
A fellow Sri Lankan employed in the camp advised him to return home. Eventually he returned to his fishing village in the northern part of the country in June this year.
The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) has helped him to re-start his life by getting him his own fishing boat.
Lingarajan is one among 2,423 people from Sri Lanka’s Northern Province who have returned with the assistance of the IOM after their failed attempts to seek asylum between 2002 and 2015.
“I think I made the biggest mistake of trying to seek asylum by risking my life and then spending 22 months in a detention camp before returning back,” Lingarajan said.