Asylum seekers' first thought: Thank-you letter

Colombo: The 41 asylum seekers aboard the Sithumina fishing vessel who were picked up by Australian navy and returned to Sri Lanka on Monday were so grateful at first for their treatment that all of them signed a handwritten letter of thanks.

‘‘We are the asylum seekers from Sri Lanka,’’ says the letter that was written by 14-year-old Jasmine Saparamadu.

‘‘We were going to New Zealand and had 41 people on board. After 10 days from leaving our country [sic], our fuel was empty and [we] had engine trouble continuously.’’

The letter explained that after calling a New Zealand emergency number, the passengers were contacted by an Australian naval officer who asked for their position and told them help was on its way.

Several days later, SOS Marine vessel 157 arrived at their location.

‘‘They saved our lives without even thinking about themselves. They gave fuel to the boat and water for the people,’’ said the passengers in the signed letter, dated June 27, a copy of which has been obtained by Fairfax.


But, according to Sujeewa Saparamadu, the letter writer’s mother, when they were transferred to a Customs and Border Protection vessel within sight of Christmas Island, their treatment suffered.

‘‘At first, when we could see the land, we asked, ‘What is this, is this Australia? Are we going there?’ But we were put on another boat and then our treatment was very different,’’ Ms Saparamadu said.

Ms Saparamadu conceded that each passenger was interviewed via satellite phone by immigration officials based in Sydney and Melbourne but said that the calls only lasted between 20 and 30 minutes.

‘‘We said (to Immigration), ‘We have lots of things to say, but not enough time to tell you’. They were not talking nicely to us. They were shouting at us,’’ says Ms Saparamadu.

Another passenger, Janaka Athukorala, said a Customs and Border Protection officer named Jasin became angry when he was told that a passenger was allergic to beef after she had just unknowingly consumed a meal of beef and rice.

However, when the woman, the mother of a newborn infant, showed signs of an allergic reaction, the Customs and Border Protection officers acted quickly, Ms Athukorala said.

‘‘They officers are very scared. They gave her an IV. Then after a few hours she was OK,’’ she said.

Ms Saparamadu acknowledged that they were adequately fed and had enough water and proper bedding but said the passengers felt mocked by the Australian crew.

The asylum seekers said they did not know they were being taken back to Sri Lanka until they pulled up alongside a Sri Lankan navy ship.

‘‘The four Tamils who were with us, three of them were punched by the Sri Lankan navy,’’ says Ms Saparamadu. ‘‘One was punched so hard in the face that he was bleeding.’’

Sri Lankan Navy spokesman Commander Kosala Warnakulasooriya said the allegations made about the treatment of Tamil asylum seekers by Sri Lankan Navy personnel were baseless and untrue. ‘‘We totally deny that anything at all of this nature happened.’’

A spokesman for Immigration Minister Scott Morrison said that Immigration officers conducted themselves professionally and exercised duty of care.

‘‘The people were returned to Sri Lanka as they did not engage Australia’s protection obligations. The government understands that people may be disappointed that they did not get what they paid a people smuggler for.’’