Sri Lanka is on the verge of ‘humanitarian emergency’, with hundreds boarding boats set for Australia
More than 300 Sri Lankans have tried to get to Australia in the past few weeks as the country’s economic crisis has worsened, with people smugglers claiming those on board will be allowed into the country under the new Labor Government.
- On election day, the Liberal Party messaged that two boats were turned around by Border Force in Australian waters
- The ABC has spoken to people on board who say they were told they would be allowed into Australia under the new Labor government
- Asylum seekers are trying to escape a worsening economic crisis, with the UN warning Sri Lanka is on the verge of a humanitarian emergency
Two of the eight boats were the subject of a controversial mass text message sent by the Liberal Party and a Coalition press conference on election day, urging people to back its tough border policies.
Most of the boats were intercepted by the Sri Lankan navy, but two managed to make it to Australian waters.
The country is facing economic collapse, and as its people struggle with dwindling supplies of medicine, food, and fuel, it’s expected more will attempt the journey.
Vision obtained by the ABC shows fishing trawlers packed with asylum seekers in choppy waters being caught by the Sri Lankan navy.
The ABC has spoken to several people on one of those boats who were told they would be allowed into Australia under the new government.
Although Labor’s policy on asylum seekers is on par with the Coalition’s — that no-one who arrives by boat will be allowed to resettle in Australia — people smugglers are taking advantage of the change in government to sell places on these vessels.
In a statement to the ABC, an Australian Border Force (ABF) spokesman said Australia’s policy was “steadfast”.
“People who travel illegally to Australia by boat will not settle permanently here,” he said.
“People smugglers are criminals and will use any means to earn a profit at the expense of others. In the case of people smuggling – it is people’s lives at risk.’
Hundreds packed onto fishing trawlers with no toilets or drinking water
It’s a straight voyage from Batticaloa on Sri Lanka’s east coast to Christmas Island, off Western Australia, and it takes up to 21 days.
This was a popular route for asylum seeker boats after Sri Lanka’s civil war ended in 2009.
People on those boats looking to enter Australia were largely from poor backgrounds and Sri Lanka’s Tamil minority who said they would be persecuted in their home country.
This was the case for the Nadesalingam family, who last week arrived back in the central Queensland town of Biloela after a four-year immigration battle that has brought the plight of Sri Lankan asylum seekers to the forefront for many Australians.
But the recent influx of boats have been intercepted all over Sri Lanka and the people on board have been from both Tamil and Sinhalese communities, and a range of economic backgrounds.
“What we’ve found is that some people have paid thousands of dollars for these journeys, so they had some kind of economic background,” Sri Lankan navy captain Indika De Silva said.
“Earlier it used to be the poor people.”
Asylum seekers from several different boats told the ABC the journey to Australia cost 1 million Sri Lankan rupees, which equates to around $4,000.
“I am a government employee, I don’t have lot of money. I get a very small salary so I had to borrow the money and we paid the full amount to the boat owner,” Sujith, a school principal, told the ABC.
“As the Australian government knows, we are struggling, we have no food to eat. We don’t even know what will happen in a few months’ time.”
After paying, passengers are called on the morning of their journey and driven to an area where they then get on their vessel.
They are loaded onto multi-day fishing trawlers that frequent Sri Lankan waters in the hopes the vessel will blend in.
But naval officers say the trawlers have so many people on board, sometimes nearly 100, so they can tell when it’s a heavy load.
“Multi-day fishing trawlers of Sri Lankan origin … are not that big, but they carry a lot of people, which is very dangerous,” Captain De Silva said.
The boats don’t have a toilet or access to fresh water and food rations are limited.
Ketheeswaran was on a boat caught near Trincomalee on Sri Lanka’s east coast.
“I was asleep inside the boat, some people vomited, and the water was coming inside the boat,” he said.
“I prayed to God when the navy flashed their lights.”
The people caught trying to go to Australia are detained and most of them have been released on bail, waiting for their next court appearance.
People smugglers lure desperate Sri Lankans with promise of changed Australia
The ABC has previously revealed one of Scott Morrison’s final acts as prime minister was instructing the Australian Border Force to issue a public statement about the interception of an asylum seeker boat on election day.
Previously Border Force maintained total secrecy on “operational matters”.
The Coalition was roundly criticised for politicising national security with these decisions, as well as the controversial text message sent to voters in multiple electorates on polling day.
Poopalapillai was on board one of the boats intercepted by the Sri Lankan navy in waters off Batticaloa two days before the Australian election.
The vessel started to sink with 40 people on board.
“The people smuggling agent said, ‘The Australian government will change, the future government is a good government, and they will let you inside the country’,” Poopalapillai told the ABC.
“The journey is very difficult, but I had to manage any way I can, I have to leave the country.
“The navy rounded up our boat and ordered us to stop, the crew wouldn’t stop and because the navy vessel was a ship our trawler wasn’t balancing, and it sank.”
The new Labor Government and the Coalition both support boat turnbacks, offshore detention, and resettlement in third countries.
Some asylum seekers said they had no knowledge about the change in government, but many said they were told it would help their chances in entering Australia.
The Australian government is running an “anti-people-smuggling” campaign in Sri Lanka, as well as other countries, called Zero Chance.
The campaign involves a competition for “budding filmmakers to creatively express illegal migration to Australia”, as well as online games that simulate an asylum seeker boat journey.
But it’s clear that misinformation about Australia’s border policies is spreading through the community.
“I heard the Australian government is doing propaganda not to go to Australia by boat but the boat people end up being sent to some islands and then the people are taken into Australia,” Poopalapillai said.
The Sri Lankan navy says people smugglers are using the change in government to sell places on their boats.
“We believe the smugglers have engaged in these activities and have made it another factor to convince poor people that this change of government may be in favour of their side,” Captain De Silva said.
“Smugglers find this difficult situation in the country as a benefit for them, they’re trying to exploit the situation and people are fooled and misled by these smugglers.”
While the new Labor Government has granted bridging visas to the Nadesalingam family, and it is understood permanent visas are being considered, the future for other Sri Lankan asylum seekers is not clear.
Why Sri Lankans are making the treacherous journey to Australia
Sri Lanka is currently grappling with its worst economic crisis in history.
The United Nations has warned the country is on the verge of a humanitarian emergency, with costs rising for basic services and the government unable to import goods with almost non-existent foreign reserves.
The next four months are set to get worse, with projections that food and fuel supplies will deteriorate and people from poor backgrounds will be the worst affected.
Many of the asylum seekers boarding vessels bound for Australia are from previously middle-class families who can no longer afford basic supplies, while others are from poorer backgrounds who were already struggling to survive.
All say living in Sri Lanka during the crisis is now impossible.
Sujith says his children and niece were on one of the most recent boats to Australia.
There were 91 people on board, including children, when it was intercepted by the Sri Lankan navy at Marawila on Sri Lanka’s west coast last week.
“Most of the people on the boat are from our village, my brother’s daughter is only 13 and she went on the boat even though I told her not to.
“But we are fighting to stay alive, we want to give them a better life than ours.”
Sujith’s son Dulmeen has several qualifications — he has finished high school and done courses in heavy machine operation — but cannot find a job in Sri Lanka.
Many like him told the ABC they got on the boat to go to Australia so they could send back foreign currency to their families in Sri Lanka, given the value of the rupee has plummeted and foreign currency reserves are so low.
“I don’t have a job in this country, there are fuel problems and electricity problems,” Dulmeen said.
“Since the country needs foreign currency I decided to take a risk and go. Since I have no passport, the only way out was by boat, but I didn’t know how wrong or right my decision was.
“If I get the opportunity to go to Australia I would like to earn money there and send dollars to the people of Sri Lanka.”
Australia urged to ‘help Sri Lanka in their time of need’
There is now pressure for Australia to help with calls from desperate Sri Lankans for the Labor Government to increase its refugee intake on economic grounds.
“My appeal to the government of Australia is to welcome the refugees who are coming in boats and give them jobs,” Dulmeen said.
“Assist Sri Lanka in their time of need, Sri Lankans are struggling at the moment.”
The Australian Government has said people classified as at risk are given refugee status in the country.
“In relation to refugee resettlement in Australia, priority is given to the most vulnerable applicants who are assessed as refugees by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and formally referred to Australia for resettlement,” the Australian Border Force Spokesman said.
“[And] those proposed by an immediate family member (i.e. spouses and minor aged children) or relatives residing in a regional area.
“The only way to travel to Australia is legally, with an Australian visa.”
The spokesman did not answer the ABC’s questions on whether priority would be given to Sri Lankans seeking refugee status due to the economic crisis.
Ketheeswaran says he just wants to get a job in Australia and send money back to his family to support them.
“It’s difficult to earn money in Sri Lanka, if I go to Australia, I can earn money and send back to my family to make a happy life,” he said.
“It’s very difficult to live in this country after the economic crisis, there are a lot of Sri Lankans in Australia, I thought if we go there, we can finally live happily.”