November 8, 2015
MARAWILA, SRI LANKA — A fishing boat, packed with 70 people, moved silently across the Indian Ocean toward Australia.
The skipper was a 53-year-old fisherman from a fishing village in the Marawila area, about 65 kilometers (40 miles) from Colombo. He was concerned about overcrowding of the vessel, a boat normally used for multiple-day deep-sea fishing. It didn’t usually carry passengers.
The skipper asked to remain anonymous, as he is a defendant in criminal proceedings in Sri Lanka and was released on bail.
It was December 2012 when that fishing boat set out from a harbor in Negombo along Sri Lanka’s western coast and picked up the passengers — all men of Tamil descent — from the coast off Jaffna, the capital of the Northern province of Sri Lanka.
“Around 9 in the evening, the organizers started loading the boat with people,” the skipper says. “We were anchored far from the beach, and they brought small groups of passengers on small motorboats.”
The skipper says he was told his boat would carry 25 or 30 people, but more kept coming, to more than double what he was told. The boat usually carries just four people – the fishing crew only.
Sri Lanka has long relied heavily on its fishing industry, and many of the country’s coastal villages are home to expert fishermen and skippers. Skippers who have deep-sea boats equipped for multiple-day expeditions say they’re approached by smugglers who need experienced teams to ferry illegal migrants from Sri Lanka to Australia.
More than 6,400 Sri Lankans arrived, unauthorized, in Australia in 2012, according to a November 2014 research paper by the Australian Department of Immigration and Border Protection.
Lakshman Dissanayake, now vice chancellor of the University of Colombo, was a co-author of the report during his time as a senior professor in the university’s demography department.
The number of Sri Lankan refugees coming to Australia by boat began to increase beginning in 2009, after the end of armed conflict in Sri Lanka, Dissanayake says in a phone interview.
“There were many people who were trying to take advantage of the post-conflict situation in the country after 2009. That is why we see a drastic increase in illegal migration during that time,” Dissanayake says. “Many organizers who acted as ‘agents’ were persuading people to migrate.
“Even the authorized foreign job agents saw this as a more profitable opportunity than the legal way,” he says.
Sri Lankan authorities intercepted 182 passengers in eight boats attempting to cross the Indian Ocean to Australia in 2009, according to the research paper. That increased to 3,139 people in 67 boats in 2012.
The majority of Sri Lankans who attempted the boat journey to Australia were Tamils, Dissanayake says, and attributes it to economic hardships in the northern and eastern parts of the country.
Many Tamils say they face discrimination in Sri Lanka. A civil war in that country, that pitted Tamil militant groups against Sinhalese-majority government forces, ended in 2009, but deep divides remain between the groups.
But Sri Lankans also have a long tradition of migration, Dissanayake says.
“There is a strong culture of migration in the country regardless of the destination,” he says. “Many feel that if you are to be successful in life, you have to migrate.”
An Australian government program named “Operation Sovereign Borders,” aimed at stopping people entering the country illegally by boat, limited illegal boat arrivals in Australia to one in 2014. Authorities turn back illegal boats before they enter Australia’s territorial waters, and no person arriving by boat is resettled in Australia.
“No one has been successful in reaching Australia last year due to policy changes from Australia and control measures imposed by Sri Lankan authorities,” Dissanayake says. “Now, often either the police arrest them before their departure or they are apprehended mid-sea before reaching Australia and are returned to Sri Lanka.”
Since September 2013, the Australian government has been carrying out a campaign in Sri Lanka, among other countries, to dissuade potential illegal migrants from embarking on the dangerous two-week journey to Australia. The campaign includes ads in newspapers and on television, billboards, posters and handbills, and on stickers distributed among fishery communities.
“Think again before you waste your money,” one campaign poster states. “People smugglers are lying.”
But people still make the journey. The Australian government makes public statements when it finds and turns away migrants, such as in February of this year, when four Sri Lankans were denied entry into Australian waters.
The trip poses serious challenges for the migrants and also for boat crews.
At sea, the skipper had to supervise navigation and ensure the safety and health of the passengers.
Since some passengers had never been on a boat before, the crew fenced the boat with fishing nets to prevent anyone from falling out. Some passengers got seasick and had to be cared for until they recovered, with a light diet of rice porridge and frequent washing with a damp cloth.
Often, the skipper was called on to mediate disputes among passengers, which was a challenge since he did not speak Tamil.
Meals had to be provided too, with a staple diet of rice, lentils and dried fish cooked over a small kerosene cooker on the boat.
“I ensured that they were safe and taken care of till we reached our destination,” the skipper says proudly.
He had four crew members: a navigator, a mechanic and two fishermen who helped with preparing meals and other tasks. The skipper was called to navigate during rough seas and along coastlines that were known to have undersea rocks and coral reefs.
They used a hand-held GPS to help them navigate, but he used his four decades of fishing experience to navigate through rocks and reefs and avoid collisions with container ships and other large vessels, the skipper says. He first went out on regular multiple-day fishing trips with his father when he was 10 years old and has been a fisherman ever since.
After about 16 days at sea, and having entered Australian territorial waters, the boat was stopped by Australian border-protection authorities. The passengers and crew of the boat moved to a ship that took them to an immigration center on Christmas Island. After a few months, they were moved to an immigration-processing center on the mainland of Australia.
The skipper of the boat, suffering from ill health, returned to Sri Lanka. He was arrested on arrival at the airport on Sept. 26, 2013, and held in remand custody for eight months before being released on a surety bond totalling 2 million rupees ($14,174).
The majority of the skippers who embark on the journey to Australia are middle-aged fishermen with extensive experience in multiple-day deep-sea fishing, says Himal Warakagoda, senior manager of projects at Colombo International Nautical and Engineering College.
“They have the skills to survive in adversities in the middle of the sea,” Warakagoda says.
Warakagoda has been involved in skills-development program for fishermen in the western, eastern and northern provinces of the country, and he says many of the skippers of boats carrying illegal migrants to Australia come from fishing communities along the southern or western coast.
Dissanayake says the skilled navigators from the northwestern coastal areas have a long history of being involved in illegal migration.
“Before the trend became Australia-bound, people from Chilaw and Negombo have attempted the journey to Italy and were often successful,” Dissanayake says.
Viyani Samson is an experienced fisherman and the coordinator from Chilaw area for the National Fisheries Solidarity Movement, an association of fishermen groups focused on advocacy and welfare issues of fishery communities. He was also, until May 2015, an elected official in a local government body. He lives in a fishing village in the Marawila area, near the skipper’s village.
He has traveled around Sri Lanka and spent time with fishery communities and has seen the high demand for skilled and experienced fishermen to navigate boats to Australia.
He says Negombo on the western coast, Beruwela along the southwestern coast and Dikwella and Kudawella on the southern coast are the areas where the most sought-after skippers are found.
“These are the main fishing harbors from where multi-day boats set off to sea,” Samson says. “So most boats embarking on journey to Australia had a skipper from one of these communities. The skippers from these communities are skilled in navigating in deep sea, as they have long years of experience.”
Fishermen don’t earn a regular income, Samson says. They often have to avoid fishing during bad weather and have periods of no fishing work at all. Sometimes, a 45-day fishing trip can bring in around 300,000 rupees ($2,126) if it’s a successful haul. That money is shared among the crew. But sometimes, they return with no catch.
The usual rates offered to skippers of migrant boats range from 1 million rupees ($7,087) to 1.5 million rupees ($10,630), he says.
Anthony, a fisherman from Negombo, was a mechanic on a boat that left for Australia in September 2012. He is identified by his last name only to protect his identity.
His son had made the same journey, as a passenger, a month before and had been granted refugee status. So when Anthony was invited to be part of the crew, he eagerly accepted.
“Since I had nothing else here, I said OK when they told me about the journey,” he says. “I thought I can join my son.”
Although a crew member, he too had to pay his way. He paid half the fee of 800,000 rupees ($5,670) before the journey and arranged with a friend to settle the balance payment on his behalf.
But he had strong misgivings when he saw the dilapidated condition of the boat they were to travel on.
“When I saw how old the boat was, I was not confident and didn’t want to go,” Anthony says. “But the skipper of our boat assured me that it would be OK.”
Loaded with supplies for the journey, the boat left their village with a four-person crew who were all from neighboring fishing villages. The boat also traveled north to pick up passengers from Jaffna.
He had been told they would carry 20 passengers, but the boat was loaded with around 40 people, Anthony says. He panicked when he saw the overcrowded boat and protested to the men who were organizing the illegal journey.
“I attempted jumping out of the boat,” Anthony says. “But they wouldn’t allow me to.”
Not long after the trip began, the boat engine seized, and they drifted in the Indian Ocean for 18 days before being rescued by an Indian fishing vessel. They were taken to India and later repatriated to Sri Lanka.
Samson says he has been offered large sums of money to be a skipper on illegal-migrant boats to Australia.
“I was asked even recently, but I always refuse,” he says.
The legal repercussions such a journey would entail are not worth the risk, Samson says. But many in his village, including some members of his extended family, have attempted the journey.
Some have been successful and received refugee status in Australia, while others have been deported, he says.
Because his village has been a popular source of crew for the migrant boats, it has received a lot of attention from the campaign by the Australian government discouraging boats from setting sail for Australia.
The main road leading to his village has a large billboard warning the community against human-smuggling, and he and other community leaders have been given handbills and stickers with information from the campaign for distribution among the families in their village.
The skipper says he regrets his decision to take illegal migrants to Australia.
When the organizers approached him, he was lured in by the idea of visiting another country, he says. He was also offered a handsome fee for his services, he admitted, refusing to reveal how much he earned.
The skipper says his life has become extremely difficult since he returned to Sri Lanka.
“Most of us cannot even engage in our trade anymore as we are summoned to the Criminal Investigations Department and courts regularly,” he says. “No progress seems to be happening, no matter how often we go there.”
He now depends on his wife’s earnings. She works as a housemaid in Israel, he says.
The next hearing in the skipper’s case is scheduled for April 2016, when he plans to submit a “not guilty” plea. From there, full court proceedings will begin.
“Had I known it was going to be like this, I would have never made the journey,” he says.
Chathuri Dissanayake and Lakshman Dissanayake are not related.
Chathuri Dissanayake, GPJ, translated three interviews from Sinhala.