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Don't believe lies, Bowen tells Sri Lankans

Date

Ben Doherty

Immigration Minister Chris Bowen.

Immigration Minister Chris Bowen. Photo: Andrew Meares

AUSTRALIAN government officials are running a public-relations blitz to dissuade Sri Lankans, tempted by people smugglers' promises of visas and well-paid work in Australia, from boarding boats.

Would-be asylum seekers from Sri Lanka are being told there is no prospect of them working in Australia while their claims are assessed, and that they will be forced to survive on ''minimal subsistence'' from the government.

Department of Immigration deputy secretary Peter Vardos said in Colombo that, despite Nauru and Manus Island detention centres being full, asylum seekers given bridging visas to live in Australia would have no capacity to earn any money. ''They will not have work rights, and they will have minimal subsistence from the federal government to help them.''

Asylum seekers will be eligible for 89 per cent of the Newstart allowance, about $438 a fortnight.

''One selling point of the people smugglers is that people can come to Australia while their claims are being processed … that they can work in the Australian community, earn an income and repatriate remittances to their country. That will not happen,'' he said.

Australia wanted skilled migrants, Mr Vardos said.

''We do not need semi[-skilled] or unskilled people, we do not need people who unilaterally show up on our shores and say 'give me a job'. I can appreciate why people seek a better life for themselves. But it's a risky journey and people die.''

A video message from Immigration Minister Chris Bowen has been broadcast to Sri Lankan media in English, Sinhala and Tamil: ''People are dying at sea on unseaworthy boats, based on false promises and lies about what awaits them in Australia. This is unacceptable.''

So far this year, 6192 Sri Lankans have arrived by boat in Australian waters. About 511 have been returned.

The Department of Immigration says it does not keep statistics on the ethnicity of asylum seekers. Sri Lanka maintains that 90 per cent of those leaving the country are members of the Tamil ethnic minority.

But the overwhelming majority of those being returned to Sri Lanka as ''economic migrants'' are Sinhalese.

Sources in Sri Lanka have told Fairfax that, while Tamils still make up most of the asylum seekers leaving the country, there has been a spike in recent months in Sinhalese men, especially fishermen from the west of the country, seeking passage to Australia.

Coastal communities like Negombo and Chilaw have seen a dramatic increase in the number of poor fishermen leaving for Australia, driven to flight by Sri Lanka's faltering economy, rising fuel costs, and a substantially reduced fish catch.

''People are living in a very bad situation, they cannot make enough money to feed their families,'' Herman Kumara, convener of the National Fisheries Solidarity Movement told Fairfax. ''These people are desperate and they want to make a better life for themselves.''

Many struggling fishermen sell their ageing boats to people-smuggling rings, highly organised ''businesses'' run by a few kingpins and with a network of contacts across the country and overseas.

The smuggling rings buy old boats that come cheap and that they are happy to surrender when they reach Australian waters, or sink at sea.

The number of boats leaving Sri Lanka is difficult to ascertain, but by some estimates one in three are not seaworthy enough to make it out of Sri Lankan waters, or they sink without trace in the Indian Ocean.

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