Sixty-five Sri Lankan nationals, who had set out on a trawler from Point Pedro in northern Sri Lanka with the idea of emigrating to Australia, were rescued and towed to safety by Nagapattinam fishermen past midnight on Thursday.
The stranded vessel had developed a technical glitch and drifted away, when it was spotted by a fishing boat 120 nautical miles east of Velankanni.
The prospective asylum-seekers, including three women and seven boys below 18 years, were lured by the spurious promise of guaranteed refuge in Australia by a local agent in Sri Lanka. They had all come from places such as Negombo, Colombo, Kilinochchi and Mandaitheevu to Point Pedro (Paruthithurai in Tamil) to make the long journey on the boat. According to 32-year-old Rajendran*, a local agent, had promised them sanctuary and livelihood in Australia on payment of Rs.10 lakh. Each of them had paid between Rs. 3 and Rs. 5 lakh and the remaining amount was to be paid upon reaching Australian shores.
All but four were Sri Lankan Tamils, and four Sinhalese were entrusted with the job of dropping them off in Australia. According to the accounts of the refugees, on the night of August 24, the agent had promised that the trawler would drop them off onto a bigger boat, few nautical miles off Paruthithurai coast. “But, there was no sign of a bigger boat or any person,” says Rajendran from Jaffna. The boat with no essential reserves, except for a can of water and rice, had later developed a technical snag. ‘The GPS and the engine had stopped working, and we sailed with the wind,” says Rajendran.
For the Sri Lankan Tamils, it was a 20-day-long ordeal and their hopes of survival had waned till they were sighted by Nagapattinam fishermen on September 12. “We had to live on a single can of water, drinking 50 ml of water, mixed with sea water everyday.” That was how they could last that long without essentials.
Initially, the Nagapattinam fishermen were reluctant to engage them, except to aid them with food and water. That was also the first time they ate decent food in days.
“I sold everything to pay up Rs. 3 lakh,” says 55-year-old Vasanthi.
Twenty-eight year-old Poorani had paid Rs. 3 lakh for her journey and Rs. 1 lakh for her 11-year-old son Menakan’s. She had lost her husband during the conflict, and had now left behind her parents, hoping to make a living in Australia. “Now, I want my son to study in some school here.”
However, on Friday, lodged in a private marriage hall and under surveillance, their dreams seemed to have shrunk abruptly from when they started three weeks ago.
From wanting to earn livelihood in a far-off land, their needs have skinned down to change of clothes, sanitary pads, bathing and washing shops and toothbrushes. Crouched and fatigued after a long journey in a cramped, ill-equipped trawler, they have expressed their desire to remain here as refugees.
According to an official source, they would be interrogated and further course of action would be taken.
*(All names changed on request)