Sri Lankan government detains hundreds fleeing overseas amid economic crisis

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More than 1,000 desperate people, mostly Tamils ​​from northern and eastern Sri Lanka, have been arrested this year trying to escape the food shortage, famine and unemployment plaguing the country by emigrating.

Sri Lankan Tamils ​​in an Indian refugee camp (Image: Wikimedia EC/ECHO Arjun Claire)

In the latest incident, 10 people, including six women and children, were arrested on August 16 by the Sri Lankan Navy in the Talaimannar Sea, northern Sri Lanka. Many poor Sinhalese families were arrested by the Sri Lankan and Australian navies as they attempted to flee deteriorating social conditions.

The number of migrants who traveled legally to seek employment abroad quadrupled in the first half of the year, with 32 Sri Lankans flying every hour, the Sunday time reported recently.

Recent mass protests against the government that forced former President Gotabhaya Rajapakse to flee the country have been fueled by unbearable poverty, severe shortages of food, fuel and medicine, and long power cuts.

The social catastrophe, however, continues unabated, with the year-on-year inflation rate hitting 60% in July and food inflation hitting 90%. The cost of food is so high that millions of Sri Lankans have had to drastically reduce their daily food intake.

Elevated to the presidency by the discredited parliament, Ranil Wickremesinghe is using state of emergency measures and the state apparatus to quell mass protests as he prepares to impose new attacks from the International Monetary Fund (IMF ) to the masses.

Battered by the nearly three-decade-long communal war in Colombo and the recent COVID-19 pandemic, Tamils ​​in northern and eastern Sri Lanka are among the hardest hit by the current economic crisis.

Citing Sri Lankan authorities, Sri Lankan media have recently reported a sharp increase in the number of people attempting to migrate to Australia and India. More than 80 people have fled to India in the first four months of 2022, selling their belongings to pay smugglers or hire boats.

“We were so desperate that we decided to go to Australia in a fishing trawler and risk our lives because we can’t imagine how we could afford to buy food for our three children in this country” , said Malan (pseudonym), a fisherman from the western coastal town of Chilaw.

“There is no diesel or kerosene for the fishing boats. We have no income. We couldn’t afford higher prices than we had ever paid for fuel. Our lives had been devastated,” he said.

Malan, along with his wife and three children, were among a group of 55 Sri Lankans arrested by the navy on May 20 in a fishing boat near Trincomalee on the east coast of Sri Lanka. They were trying to sail to Australia.

“There were seven women and four children. Only ten of us were Sinhala and the rest were Tamil,” Malan said.

While most of the passengers were fishermen, some were petty traders who paid operators between 700,000 rupees (US$1,949) and 1,500,000 rupees (US$4,177) for the dangerous journey. They raised the money by selling their property, taking out loans, or pawning jewelry.

“Now we have lost everything. We fell from the frying pan into the fire. We have no money and are heavily in debt,” Malan said, while explaining that their court cases would drag on for months.

“I have to spend over 25,000 rupees for almost five of us for the trial in Trincomalee. The trial could be torture for us, physically, mentally and financially,” he said.

If found guilty, those arrested could face a harsh two-year prison sentence and a fine. These returnees are also prohibited from applying for Australian visas in the future.

A 41-year-old Lankan woman who had fled with eight family members to Rameswaram, in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, said Deutsche Welle (DW) that her husband could not find work and could not afford the daily cost of food. She was worried about their fate as they are being held as virtual prisoners without any rights at Mandapam Rehabilitation Camp in Rameswaram which has been allocated for Sri Lankan refugees.

A 26-year-old painter, who traveled from Sri Lanka to India with his wife in March, echoed those concerns. “We couldn’t do anything in Sri Lanka because of the economic crisis. If I had known we would be held in a refugee camp like this, I wouldn’t have come at all,” he told DW.

He explained that they had been in the camp for a month, with no idea what was going to happen to them. He wanted to find work to support his family. “That’s all we ask,” he said.

According to DW, there were nearly 59,000 Sri Lankan Tamils ​​living in 108 refugee camps in Tamil Nadu, with over 34,000 refugees living outside of these camps. Many of them had fled the country since Colombo’s anti-Tamil war which started in 1983 and ended in 2009.

In 2012, the state government of Tamil Nadu withdrew political asylum from Sri Lankans and treated them as illegal migrants until March this year.

When local Tamil Nadu residents protested the arrest of Sri Lankan asylum seekers, the state government was forced to take the refugees straight to the miserable rehabilitation camps.

The hypocrisy of the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister’s ‘goodwill’ gesture towards these refugees is revealed by the fact that India has stepped up coastguard patrols of the Palk Strait to prevent further Sri Lankan refugees to enter India.

Successive Australian governments have vilified refugees arriving by boat and implemented draconian measures to prevent them from settling in Australia, including the use of the navy to turn back boats and indefinite imprisonment in offshore detention centres.

In 2012, the Australian Labor government sent its then foreign minister, Bob Carr, to Sri Lanka to prevent refugees from fleeing persecution, following the defeat of the separatist Tamil Tigers in 2009.

The returnees were subjected to interrogations, torture and disappearances at the hands of the police and the army. Australia’s involvement in these operations is a flagrant violation of the International Refugee Convention, which recognizes the right to flee persecution, and a violation of the fundamental legal and democratic rights of Sri Lankan workers.

The Australian Border Force (ABF) recently handed over 46 “illegal” Sri Lankan migrants to authorities in Colombo. The ABF’s regional director for South Asia, Commander Chris Waters, told media in Colombo that Australian authorities had returned 183 Sri Lankans since last May. He pointed out that the recently elected Labor government had not relaxed any of Australia’s repressive migration policies.

The ABF said it returned 125 illegal Sri Lankan migrants and a boat crew to Sri Lanka between June 1 and June 30, as part of Australia’s Operation Sovereign Borders, a border security initiative led by the armed and set up in 2013.

To prevent any influx of Sri Lankan refugees fleeing the current economic crisis, Australia provided the Sri Lankan authorities with 4,200 GPS trackers to install on fishing boats, the Guardian announced June 22.

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