Heightened border surveillance in Sri Lanka, as well as recent agreements between Australia and Sri Lanka to divert and deport would-be asylum seekers, have slashed the number of Sri Lankans reaching Australia’s shores by boat, say Australian authorities. Yet these measures have failed to discourage an increasing number – mostly from the island’s former conflict zones in the north and east – from attempting the dangerous journey.
In 2013 (up to 7 November) close to 2,000 Sri Lankan asylum seekers arrived by sea in Australian territories such as Christmas Island, Ashmore Reef and Cocos (Keeling) Islands, according to Australia’s Customs and Border Protection office. In 2012, three times as many Sri Lankans reached Australia’s shores.
Australia started deporting Sri Lankan would-be immigrants in August 2012 (543 from January to November 2013),diverting others to off-shore processing centres in the neighbouring island countries of Papua New Guinea and Nauru, and putting up cautionary billboards at popular departure points in Sri Lanka’s north and east.
“The programme is working well. The return policy and rapid transfers appear to have an impact on would-be immigrants,” an official with the Australian High Commission in Sri Lanka told IRIN.
Even so, more and more people are trying to leave Sri Lanka, especially in the north, where a 26-year civil war destroyed infrastructure and caused severe suffering. Hostilities ended some four years ago between Sri Lanka’s security forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) rebels, who fought for a separate homeland, but economic recovery has been slow. Jobs are hard to find, making people willing to risk their lives escaping by boat.
Most migrants are unmarried young men with low levels of education, while older men with families and women are less inclined to risk the crossing, according to the Point Pedro Institute of Development, located in the northern district of Jaffna.
Muttukrishna Sarvananthan, an economist and principal researcher at the institute, said livelihoods in the north have improved since 2010, but more investment is needed to speed up recovery.
“Although the unemployment rate had dropped [to 27.4 percent in 2012, from 32.8 percent the year before], it is still more than double the national average in 2012,” he pointed out to IRIN in an email.
The unpublished results of a 2012 survey by the institute found that the main factors driving migration - legal and illegal - included poor living conditions (reported by 74 percent of participants) and lack of secure employment opportunities (41 percent), while fear of the military, which has retained a strong presence, had lower importance (18 percent). The institute pointed out the “relatively small” sample size, and need for further research.
Youths in the north reported being more fearful of persecution, and also more willing, to leave the island than those in the east.
Interviews conducted on Australian shores with Sri Lankan asylum seekers in 2012 confirmed that most had left for economic reasons, disqualifying them from protection under international conventions.
Marimuttu Valliamma*, 61, a resident of the northern town of Kilinochchi, whose 24-year-old son returned home in 2012 after an unsuccessful sea crossing to Australia, told IRIN the “madness” of migration had “destroyed” her family.
“He [my son] sold the only land we had to raise the money, and got my only valuables – a gold chain and earrings – also pawned, promising to redeem them when he gets paid the first time. He said there [was] no future in Sri Lanka as there were no jobs.”
She told IRIN her son had been promised a job in Australia, and assumed his passage was legal – a falsehood the Sri Lankan navy exposed when it stopped his boat.
Others deny they left because of poverty. “After 2010 [post-war], we expected normalcy. Instead, youths involved in opposition political activities felt under [so much] pressure that many felt compelled to leave the island,” said Sugunan Vaithilingam*, 28, a supporter of the key Tamil political party, Tamil National Alliance (TNA), who paid the equivalent of nearly US$11,400 to a smuggler in 2011 to get to Australia.
He was also turned back.
Since July 2013, Sri Lankans deemed eligible for refugee status by Australia’s Department of Immigration and Citizenship have been sent for off-shore processing and detention on either Papua New Guinea or Nauru. Amnesty International has described the facility in Nauru as a “toxic mix of uncertainty, unlawful detention and inhumane conditions”
The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) also recently condemned the harsh conditions and legal shortcomings in Australia’s off-shore detention centres.
Activists have deemed Australia’s “enhanced screening”, approved in late 2012, as a violation of the country’s obligations under international treaties to assume asylum seekers will not face persecution in their home countries unless proven otherwise before repatriation.
Australian authorities deported Alagan Kumarvel*, 27, in 2012 after holding him in custody on Christmas Island for one month. “If I have to do it again, I would do so. There is nothing for me here [Sri Lanka]. But I have no means of making a second attempt. We were told by the boat operators ‘Australia [is] a humanitarian land’,” he told IRIN in Jaffna District, where he helps run a small fishing boat.
The researcher, Sarvananthan, said why Australia was a country of choice for Sri Lankan migrants had a lot to do with its record of humanitarian assistance. “This… is largely due to the number of Australian volunteers who arrived [in the north] during the ceasefire [2002-2004] between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers, and post-tsunami [in 2004] in the north and the east].”
More recently, Australia invested nearly $187 million in Sri Lanka from 2010 to 2013, which included rebuilding communities affected by conflict. Its programme strategy until 2016 emphasizes a “post-conflict” approach, in which “all aid interventions Australia supports will be conceived, managed and evaluated in a way that is sensitive to the post-conflict environment.
Australia does this because social and economic progress will be undermined if peace is not sustained”.
As the number of youths fleeing the island increases, Canberra has financed local radio broadcasts in the dominant language of the north, Tamil, warning listeners that "Australia has toughened its immigration laws. Illegal entry will not be allowed on Australian soil. Boats will be diverted to Papua New Guinea.”
In November 2013 there were nearly 5,000 Sri Lankans in Australian immigration detention facilities on Nauru and Papua New Guinea.