Australia bound ... at any cost

IN KARAN'S recurring nightmare, a great wave sweeps his teenage children overboard and he watches as they drown. He knows he should dive in after them, but he feels paralysed and all he can do is fumble with the straps and buckles of his life vest in a vain attempt to secure it. Before he can rescue them, he is awake and drenched in perspiration.

Karan's eyes moisten as he recalls his nightmare. Thankfully, his children are alive and well and never even came close to drowning, but the treacherous voyage is more than just a figment of his unconscious.

On August 28, he boarded a fishing boat in the south-west Indian port of Mangalore with his wife, children and 49 other Sri Lankan refugees. Its GPS was set for Christmas Island, but the vessel never got there.

Last month, David Holly, Australia's consul-general to Chennai, the capital of the southern state of Tamil Nadu, warned of the perils of travelling to Australia by boat. He didn't single out the Sri Lankans, but there's little doubt he was referring to them.

During Sri Lanka's 30-year civil war, India took in more than 100,000 ethnic Tamil refugees, many of whom are now seeking to take their asylum claims to Australia. In the past year alone, police in Tamil Nadu say they have stopped 17 boats from setting sail and 900 people have been arrested.

Many more boats have evaded authorities, attempting the journey to Christmas Island with only slim odds of success: vessels have run out of fuel, turned back of their own volition, and been captured in Indonesia. At least two are lost at sea.

Karan says he was well aware of the risks when he arranged passage to Australia, but it was too dangerous to return to Sri Lanka and life in an Indian refugee camp is a dead end. He and his wife have been in Tamil Nadu since the early 1990s, but still carry identity cards marking them as refugees. Since India is not a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention it is under no obligation to grant citizenship to refugees or their children.

Karan's two children, although born and raised in India, have no more rights to naturalisation than their parents. ''The quality of life is poor here, I'm not satisfied with this life,'' he says. ''For 22 years I have been here, and I don't want to be a refugee any more. I heard that Australia is doing good things for refugees, giving citizenship, health care.''

Karan and his wife paid $3800 for passage to Christmas Island (their two teenage children got to travel for free). The 16-metre iron fishing boat they boarded left late at night, with its 53 passengers crouched in the hull - the part of the vessel fishermen pack with ice to keep their catch fresh. At first, they hid to evade the coast guard, but bad weather kept them down there with the hatch sealed for most of the trip.

Karan says that in hindsight, it was a mistake to leave at the tail end of the south-western monsoon.

''We couldn't breathe in the boat. People were urinating and vomiting, they were passing out from the smell down there, but we couldn't come up, it was too rough, we risked being thrown overboard.''

Five days into the journey, as the boat neared Kanyakumari at India's tip, its GPS failed. The decision to return to land was unanimous; Karan says by then people were begging to get off the boat, some even threatening to throw themselves overboard.

''I didn't care if I was arrested by police and sent back to Sri Lanka, I just wanted to get off the boat. I had a red and white cloth ready to surrender with, and I didn't care if I got arrested.''

After asking directions from fishermen, the asylum seekers finally docked in Cochin Harbour in the southern state of Kerala. The police were none the wiser. And after less than a week at sea, Karan was able to settle back into his old life without incident; his casual job as a mobile phone technician in Chennai remained open, and due to an administrative error, the family was able to return to Gummidipoondi refugee camp without having to answer questions about their absence.

According to government records, 67,682 Sri Lankan Tamils live in 112 government-run refugee camps spread out across Tamil Nadu, a state where refugees and locals share Tamil as a lingua franca.

Gummidipoondi is one of the largest refugee camps, with more than 1000 families on its books. They live in rows of thatched huts off unpaved roads. Up to 10 families share a single toilet. While the gates to the camp remain open, police hold regular roll calls and monitor comings and goings; anyone who leaves without authorisation runs the risk of losing their free accommodation, utilities and monthly stipend. Gummidipoondi is often referred to as an ''open jail''.

Recently, police began disseminating rambling five-point notices in Tamil, printed on A3 sheets of paper. It begins: ''It has come to our attention that people are trying to go by boat to Christmas Island and the Cocos Islands'', and warns that those who do run the risk of being sent back to Sri Lanka, and ends with an offer of money in exchange for information.

Camp residents are well aware that Australia now sends asylum seekers to Nauru, but nonetheless many are convinced that it's still preferable to be a refugee under the care of an Australian government than the Indian one.

In Chennai I spoke to Isha, whose husband left for Australia two years ago and hasn't been heard of since. But she's confident he's still alive and plans to join him in Australia if he ever makes it there. Asked if the prospect of spending several years at a camp dissuades her, she says: ''No problem, I have been a refugee since 1996, what's another two or three years?''

Many Sri Lankans take it for granted that because India respects their need for asylum Australia will too. They believe Australia will afford them the protection of a human rights charter drafted in the West and that they will mostly spend a finite time as a refugee. They understand that Australian citizenship is well within their reach.

Dr G. Ashok Gladston Xavier, an expert on refugees at Loyola College in Chennai, has conducted extensive interviews with Sri Lankan Tamils. He says many are unaware of the realities of seeking asylum in Australia.

''The information they get back is that everything is fine and rosy, people are welcomed with the red carpet … They think the moment you touch the shores of Australia they are going to welcome you and take care of you for the rest of your life. There is a willing suspension of disbelief.''

The trajectory of one particular boat that left the south-eastern town of Pondicherry at 11pm on August 9 keenly illustrates the disarray and confusion that has characterised numerous attempted journeys to Australia.

At Gummidipoondi, I met Rani, a teacher at the camp whose son Tushanthan had been on board; she told me he was two subjects short of completing a bachelor of business administration at Loyola College, one of the top universities in South India, when he paid about $2000 for passage.

Tushanthan, speaking from North Pagai, an island in Indonesia, where he was waiting to be processed by the International Organisation for Migration, says that within 12 days of departure, the boat ran out of fuel and became stranded in international waters.

With no map, and running out of food and water, the asylum seekers would pray every evening for a miracle. On the fourth night at sea, their prayers seemed to be answered when a light on the horizon turned out to be a fishing boat. The asylum seekers were able to buy a map, food supplies, and extra fuel. But their new supplies ran out at the Mentawai Strait in Indonesia.

There, the boat was sighted by police and towed to shore. At first, the asylum seekers refused to leave the boat or accept food. A sign hanging from the boat read: ''We will not stop hunger striking until we get fuel to go to Christmas Island.''

But after nine days they relented. Tushanthan has a clear message for other Sri Lankans: ''Do not come by sea, it's too dangerous.'' He says that another boat that left India days after his has not been seen since. One of his college friends was on board.

Karen Lynn Alford, an Indonesia-based doctor who treated the group, says rumours are circulating that a boatload of Sri Lankans who left India days before the group's departure had already reached Christmas Island and its passengers had been granted asylum.

''They have all heard stories and have family members that have got asylum and citizenship. They have been told if you come,you will have a

place to stay. People think that being sent to Nauru is a good thing, it will make the processing faster.''

XAVIER says that people-smuggling networks in India are connected with international operations with ties to Sri Lanka. But there's evidence of small-time agents doing business in the refugee camps.

At Gummidipoondi, police have arrested two camp residents for arranging boats, and at least seven other agents have fled. Karan says the man who organised his voyage is a fellow Sri Lankan who used to live at Gummidipoondi, but has gone into hiding in Chennai.

Karan estimates the man made a profit of $18,000 after paying for the boat and supplies. He's furious with the agent and also feels partly responsible for the ill-fated journey; he had convinced four of the families on board the vessel to come along to make up the numbers.

Xavier says it's common for families to recruit one another because it entitles the recruiter to a reduced fare. He says most people heading to Australia make multiple attempts, and if they lose their money when a boat is stopped by authorities, they will be eligible for a discount the next time around.

Sivanandan, a resident at Gummidipoondi, says he's been caught by police in three separate sting operations over the past two years: twice he was intercepted on a bus taking a group of asylum seekers to their boat. And once he was arrested in a hotel room rented by the transportation agent.

After shelling out large sums of money for passage and travel, he's yet to even board a boat. But his determination to leave India has not faltered. Already he's begun making inquiries and by January, when the weather has cleared and sailing conditions are optimal, he hopes to be on his way to Christmas Island.

Alana Rosenbaum is an Age journalist.

The story Australia bound ... at any cost first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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