84 detained by police in a bid to thwart their alleged attempt to migrate to Australia

In a packed dingy hall close to Old Mangalore Port on Saturday, over 80 men who were detained by police in a bid to thwart their alleged attempt to migrate to Australia gestured helplessly to the Kannada-speaking policemen.

Expressing fear about the detainment and sorrow over their lost money, they also pleaded not to be sent to jail and instead allowed to return to Tamil Nadu. Communication remained difficult until, speaking crisp English, Subash Karan (23) told the police and the media that the only wrong committed by the group was to hope for a better life. “I’m a graduate and currently pursing an MBA from Madras University. Even with those qualifications, I haven’t gotten a decent employment opportunity in Tamil Nadu. When most see that I’m a Sri Lankan refugee, they refuse me a job. I could get work only as a painter and loader,” he said. Brought to the country as a one-year-old in 1990 during the height of the strife in his hometown Kilinochchi in Tamil-dominated Sri Lanka, Mr. Karan and his family have since lived in a refugee camp in Gummidipoondi near Chennai. A few months ago, he was put in touch with an agent who assured him passage to Australia. “He said that if we paid Rs. 1 lakh he would take us there where citizenship could be obtained within a year,” said Mr. Karan. He was even shown pictures of Sri Lankan refugees settled there, and was told that thousands had already settled into a better life there. “My education has got me no benefits here. Instead, I would risk it all for a better life there,” he said.

And, with Tamil Nadu and Kerala police cracking down on ports known for human smuggling in their States, the agent had told him that the safest option would be from Mangalore. The group of men arrived at the city on Tuesday, before being arrested from their lodge late on Friday night. It isn’t only the shattered ambitions of migration that distresses him now. Coming from a family of daily-wage labourers in Chennai, and with two younger siblings still studying, collecting money for the journey was not an easy task. He said their family borrowed from friends and neighbours and could only afford to send him. “How can I go back home now? The agent has the money we borrowed, and once I go back, there is no way I can pay back,” said Mr. Karan, before saying in a hushed tone that suicide seemed like the only option.

Indians among detained?

While most of the men detained huddled together, 10 men chose to sit separately. Shouting “We Indian” to every policemen and media person walking by, the men claimed that it was a case of mistaken identity.

“We had come here a few days ago to hawk used clothes in the market near Central Talkies (close to the Old Port in the city). We have come here from Coimbatore, Madurai and Palani, and hoped to see Dharmasthala with our earnings,” said Vardhan.

The men claimed that they were slumbering in the lodge when the police arrested the group – including four women and children who were detained separately. “We just want to be let go. We have our Identity cards in our bags, but the police have kept that separately,” said Kannil. While admitting that not all their identities have been established, police officials said they await the arrival of a team from Tamil Nadu to identify everyone.

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