Tamils' transit to Australia, 'land of freedom'
Tamils' transit to Australia, 'land of freedom' July 4, 2009
Among the 100,000 refugees in Malaysia, many Sri Lankans are ready to risk all on a clandestine voyage into the Indian Ocean, writes Tom Allard in Kuala Lumpur.
Rameshwaren, a young Tamil asylum seeker, speaks quietly, with a painful melancholy that belies his years. "I feel castrated," he says, casting his eyes up from the floor. "All of this is unbearable. I am on the edge of a mental breakdown."
One of an estimated 100,000 refugees living precariously in Malaysia - there are 16 million recognised asylum seekers worldwide - the Sri Lankan's helplessness is a frustration felt around the world. Out of every 250 people forced to flee their countries because of war, famine and persecution, only one can expect to be resettled as a refugee this year.
This is why Rameshwaren is prepared to chance his arm and take a boat to Australia. "I can't return to Sri Lanka but there is no life for me here in Malaysia," he says. "I cannot work here legally, there is no medical [care], there is no education. I don't think that the UN will be able to resettle us. So we have to find somewhere else, we have to find some way to get there by ourselves. That is why I want to take a boat to Australia.
"It is a land of freedom. It is somewhere safe for me, my mother, my sisters and brother."
The UNHCR's deputy representative in Malaysia, Henrik Nordentoft, says there are "great difficulties" for asylum seekers in Malaysia and that the boats intercepted recently along the route between Malaysia, Indonesia and Australia are "probably the tip of the iceberg".
As the Herald reported this week, Indonesian authorities fear as many as 10,000 asylum seekers in Malaysia could take the journey in the near future.
With Afghans and Pakistanis, Sri Lankans make up an increasing share of the asylum seekers paying thousands of dollars to reach Australia. Almost 200 Sri Lankans arrived last weekend, taking a vessel direct from Malaysia to Christmas Island.
Indonesia looms large for many Australians as the staging point for boat people crossing into its territory, yet almost all of them come to Malaysia first, either flying directly to Kuala Lumpur or, more recently, landing in Singapore and heading across by boat.
For Sri Lankans, a large Tamil population here provides a community to tap into. Afghans and Pakistanis similarly find support from a considerable Middle Eastern population and, as people from Islamic countries, get relatively easy access on tourist visas.
But the other attraction is a vast network of people traffickers operating in Malaysia. In its annual survey released last month, the US State Department put Malaysia on a blacklist of 16 nations judged to be the worst for people trafficking.
Malaysia, the report said, "does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking and is not making significant efforts to do so". Moreover, there were "credible" reports that immigration officials and police were involved in the networks.
Many Tamils from Sri Lanka try to steal their way into countries abroad and seek asylum in those countries. Recently, 194 Tamils were apprehended in Australia when they tried to land there.
Being smuggled into another country, especially in and around the Indian Ocean costs plenty of money. It is reliably understood that a person has to pay the equivalent of USD 10,000 to 15,000 to be smuggled into Australia. In a period of austerity for the Tamils, as sated by many anti Sri Lankan people and organizations, one must wonder how so much of money is in circulation. It is not simply possible that every potential asylum seeker had millions of Sri Lankan rupees in their possession, amidsts a war, with the hope of adopting a new country.
It is also very possible that a high number of LTTE cadres defected during the last three months of the war and tried the vanishing trick by taking their chances to leave the shores of Sri Lanka.