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Looming ‘Humanitarian Emergency’ as Hundreds of Sri Lankans Attempt to Escape to Australia

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Published: June 15, 2022
Sri-Lanka-Australia-BOat-Refugees
People in Sri Lanka lining up to get fuel amidst a looming economic crisis. Pushed to their limits, hundreds of Sri Lankans have chosen to flee their nation, unaware that their “salvation” is not as it seems. (Image: AntanO via Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0)

In recent weeks, several boats were caught smuggling hundreds of Sri Lankans out of their home country, which is in the midst of a historic economic crisis. 

While most of the boats were intercepted by the Sri Lankan national navy, two of them managed to escape, leaving the fate of their passengers in the hands of the Australian government. 

The escape

Eight fishing boats were caught trying to smuggle more than 300 civilians out of Sri Lanka over the past few weeks. The Sri Lankan navy was able to intercept six of the boats, but two more escaped their clutches, making their way to Australia.

According to ABC News, some of the asylum seekers were told by the smugglers that they would be allowed into Australia under the new Labor government, despite Australia’s strict policy of forbidding settlements of people who come via boat.

The migrant’s voyage took place on a well-known route for asylum seekers; a twenty-day voyage from Batticaloa in eastern Sri Lanka to Christmas Island in western Australia. Most of the asylum seekers are believed to be either from poor backgrounds or part of the Tamil minority who is said to be persecuted in Sri Lanka.

“What we’ve found is that some people have paid thousands of dollars for these journeys, so they had some kind of economic background,” Sri Lankan navy captain India De Silva said according to ABC news, adding that, “Earlier it used to be the poor people.”

According to the asylum seekers, they paid one million Sri Lankan rupees (~US$ 4,000) for their journey to Australia. Sujith, a school principal, told ABC that he paid that exact amount from his “very small salary” and borrowed money. 

After securing a place on the boat, the passengers are summoned in the morning and driven to their boats. Using fishing trawlers to blend in, the smugglers were able to avoid detection. 

However, the navy was able to pick out how these small trawlers were able to house so many passengers, which was considered “very dangerous.” This is because they had no toilet or fresh water, in addition to limited food supplies.

“I was asleep inside the boat, some people vomited, and the water was coming inside the boat,” one passenger named Ketheeswaran told ABC News. “I prayed to God when the navy flashed their lights.” 

Years after facing a civil war, Sri Lanka is currently facing its worst economic crisis in history, which has placed the country “on the verge of a humanitarian emergency,” the United Nations (UN) recently warned.

Costs for basic services like food, medicine and fuel have risen significantly, causing a crisis that has placed the already bankrupt Sri Lanka on a knife’s edge. 

It is expected that the situation will grow even worse in the next four months, with people from poor backgrounds expected to suffer the worst of it. 

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Australia’s response

Asylum seekers have been told by smugglers that Australia’s new Labor government would allow them in. 

“The Australian government will change, the future government is a good government, and they will let you inside the country,” asylum seeker Poopalapillai told ABC News, based on what a smuggling agent told him.

However, both the new Labor and the opposing Coalition Party actually agree on preventing people from settling in Australia by boat, in addition to “offshore detention” and resettlement in “third countries” policies. 

The Australian government is even running an “anti-people-smuggling” campaign called Zero Chance in Sri Lanka, which calls for “budding filmmakers to creatively express illegal migration to Australia,” and to create online games about an asylum seekers voyage.

In May, in his last appearance as Prime Minister, Scott Morrison confirmed that an unauthorized Sri Lankan vessel was intercepted as it approached Australia, according to reports by the country’s Border Force.

Before the polls closed, voters received text messages regarding the interception, being told to “keep our borders secure by voting Liberal.” This text was widely criticized for politicizing national security.

With the country aware of the situation, pressure is mounting to help the Sri Lankans settle in Australia, despite the government’s refusal to accept them without a visa. 

At the moment, the government is giving priority to the “most vulnerable applicants who are assessed as refugees by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and formally referred to Australia for resettlement,” a spokesman of the Australian Border Force said.

“The only way to travel to Australia is legally, with an Australian visa,” the Border Force said.