Excited: Sri Lankan Nimal is to settle in Australia, in Mildura.

Excited: Sri Lankan Nimal is to settle in Australia, in Mildura.

Sri Lankan refugee Nimal is coming to Australia. This may not seem a newsworthy event except that, in 2009 and 2010 this man played a leading role in one of the most extraordinary events in the annals of asylum seeking.

Nimal was one of a group of 254 Tamil asylum seekers heading to Australia by boat when then prime minister Kevin Rudd, alarmed at a sharp rise in arrivals, phoned Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to ask a favour. Dr Yudhoyono deployed his navy, which escorted the boat back to Merak, West Java.

But if Mr Rudd thought this would be the end of it, or that his resolve would be politically rewarded, he was wrong. For 6½ months the asylum seekers, first on the boat, then in tents on the shore, refused to leave the port, demanding that Australia take them in. Nimal became their spokesman.

Another misjudged operation - the Australian Customs vessel Oceanic Viking intercepting and transporting another group of Sri Lankans to Indonesia - came and went after a shorter standoff and a sweeter deal for the refugees.

Through it all, Mr Rudd looked weak and the 254 people at Merak languished. One died; dozens escaped and caught boats to Australia. Finally, on April 19, 2010, most of the remaining 138 people were led from the port. Nimal, sobbing, said: ''We don't know what they are going to do … We are waiting for you, Australia. We are waiting for your response.''

Australia's response was to make them wait for years and then, finally, to let most of them come.

Immediately after the standoff ended, the group was sent to Indonesia's Tanjung Pinang detention centre. Seven months later they were given refugee status by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and then, 11 months after being locked up, in March, 2011, they were released.

They have since been living in the north-Sumatran city of Medan, paid for by Australian funding to the International Organisation for Migration. In batches, about 70 have received their visas and tickets to Australia. Nimal arrives in Sydney early on Thursday and will be settled in Mildura.

''I am really excited. I am going to experience new life,'' he said.

But waiting has its consequences. Varnath, a child who was two on the ship is now seven, but has been unable to begin his education in Indonesia. Adults have been unable to work or study. The older people, according to Nimal, are "mentally damaged".

''It's a waste for everyone; for me and for the Australian government. If I was in Australia for four years I would pay income tax … and I could become a good citizen.''

Nimal is champing to start his new life, but is also nervous about finding a job. He has a commerce degree but … wonders if he might retrain as a social worker.

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