License article

Pawns in asylum trade

NEGOMBO, Sri Lanka: "If you get to Australia, you can get visa, and you can get work. Straight away."

The pitch is simple, and it’s unchanged by the policy whims of a government on the other side of the Indian Ocean.

From a prison yard on Sri Lanka’s west coast an unrepentant Savi* delivers the spiel he gave for months – clearly convincingly – to dozens of Sri Lankans until the plan he was selling unravelled on him.

Those who believed him, his passengers, never got the chance to discover that he was lying, or that he himself had been misled.

Savi and the nearly two dozen people he had recruited to sail to Australia were caught, hiding by the shore, waiting for their boat to arrive. They never even set foot on board.

As an organiser, an alleged people-smuggler, Savi is weeks into what could be a long stay in a dirty, overcrowded prison, far from his home and family.


But Savi is a pawn – a low-level operative, happily expendable. He does not even know the names of his bosses. His arrest, and that of dozens of others like him, interrupt the people-smuggling trade not at all. The boats are still leaving, and people are still queuing up to board them.

Sri Lanka’s people smugglers live in the shadows. Crouched in the shade, Savi keeps his head down, and speaks through an intermediary. He is a reluctant interviewee, worried about the repercussions of talking, but fearful his stretch in prison could run to years.

His family has nearly exhausted its money paying a lawyer to fight his case, struggling even to find enough for the bus fare to see him once a fortnight in court.

‘‘I’m a poor person too, this is a job so we can support our families. These people want to go to Australia, we make it possible. We are not bad.’’ 

It’s a ruthless trade, Christopher Fernando says. His son Randika left for Australia three months ago, and is now on Nauru, awaiting the assessment of his asylum claim.

Randika left behind his wife, Aruni, and one-year-old boy Shehan. He pawned the family’s jewellery, and sold his three-wheeler to finance the trip. Still he had to take out a loan. All told he had to pay about 200,000 rupees (about $1500), and will owe more still if he lands a job in Australia.

To whom did the money go?

‘‘I can’t tell you,’’ Christopher Fernando says. ‘‘If I say they will come and kill me. They are dangerous people.’’

 On the beach at Negombo, Fernando holds his grandson, looking out over the water from where their father and son left.

‘‘My son wants to go to Australia, but even Nauru is better than Lanka,’’ he says.

‘‘In Nauru, they live in tents, but he has enough food to eat every day, they look after him well, and he studies English. Maybe he will have a good job one day.’’ 

Sri Lanka’s people smuggling industry is not an ad hoc, opportunistic racket, a few struggling fishermen with an old boat and a desire for a new life. It is a business, a sophisticated and well-organised operation, run  for profit. 

Most of those leaving Sri Lanka are seeking a chance to make money to send home. Sri Lanka’s poor are being hammered by rampant inflation – especially on food and fuel – falling wages, and a dearth of jobs. It’s especially bad in the Tamil-dominated north, where unemployment runs at 20 per cent.

Aruna Fernando (no relation) a fisherman, sees the people-smuggling racket in operation all around, though he’s no part of it. He says the ringleaders are never known to those on the ground.

The risk is carried by the many at the bottom, to the benefit of the few at the top. Separated by layers of middlemen, passengers never meet those taking them across the ocean, or usually even know who they are.

Almost every one of the thousands of fishing villages along Sri Lanka’s coast has an agent, he explains, usually a young man, who runs a couple of mobile phone numbers he changes regularly, and who has a contact who can find a spot on a boat.

The village-level agent usually takes about 50,000 rupees as an initial payment, in return for a preliminary spot on a boat and a contact with a more senior agent, co-ordinating a whole stretch of coastline.

That agent takes a further commission — usually between 100,000 and 200,000 rupees – for the final place on a vessel.

Passengers wait, sometimes weeks, usually for a text message, telling them where to be and when. Commonly, it’s the middle of the night, and often a bus or car ride away, even all the way across the country, to wherever is judged the safest place for a boat to leave, the weather best and the Navy’s surveillance poorest.

People are told to bring a small bag with clothes, some food that will keep, a small amount of water, and panadol for the sea-sickness.

‘‘My three brothers go [sic] because they need money to support their families,’’ Srimali tells Fairfax Media.

Her brothers sailed for, and made, Australia only to be swiftly deported. They were not organisers, but have been jailed.

‘‘We have nothing, we cannot live in this country. We don’t have enough food, we cannot pay for our children’s education.  ... My brothers work hard as fishermen but they cannot earn enough for the family. They had to go.’’ Srimali’s family sold all it had to finance her brothers’ trip, on the promise of a better future.

‘‘There was a man, he told us there would be a visa issued to all when they arrive in Australia. He said there was plenty of work for fishermen in Australia.’’ The Australian government is trying hard to dispel these ideas.

Visiting senior government officials have pushed the message that there is no work in Australia for those without an asylum claim, which could take years; daily, Sinhala and Tamil newspapers carry advertisements, paid for by Australia, telling potential asylum seekers they ‘‘will not be able to earn money in Nauru or Papua New Guinea to send back to your families’’.

But the people smugglers’ message is an enticing one, and, in the villages, the one heard loudest.

They tell people the Australian government message is a plant, placed at the behest of the Sri Lankan regime, which wants to stop Sri Lankans, particularly Sinhalese, from leaving the country.

The smugglers also point to the example of earlier asylum seekers, some of whom went to Australia five, 10, even 15 years, ago, and who now, when they return to the island, carry the allure of Western wealth.

The agents gloss over new asylum seeker policies in Australia, and ignore the years of hardship those earlier migrants endured.

Not everyone boarding a boat to Australia does so seeking work. Some feel compelled to leave. Three years on from the end of a brutal quarter-century long civil war, peace is fractious and fragile. There is still persecution.

Political opponents of the government, or Tamils believed to be former Tiger sympathisers, face serious and sometimes life-threatening victimisation.

Australia told Sri Lanka at a recent United Nations human rights review it must ‘‘take action to reduce and eliminate all cases of abuse, torture or mistreatment by police and security forces ...  [and] all cases of abductions and disappearances’’.

But most Sri Lankans boarding boats for Australia do so for work and from a desire to build a better life for their family. 

At the beach in Negombo, Christopher Fernando says he misses his son. They speak by phone most days, but he tells him he doesn’t want him to come back yet.

‘‘He had to go, he has a chance for a good life there. Here, there is no chance.’’ 

*Names have been changed