Refugees Losing All In Bid To Go Down Under
By Dinouk Colombage
Sevannan Viralasingham has been separated from his family for over 10 years. In a bid to rejoin with them he sought the assistance of human smugglers. After nearly two years of raising the funds and attempting the journey, Viralasingham is still no closer to his family than when he started.
Viralasingham, who lived in Kilinochchi his entire life, owned a small shop in the main town, until in early 2000. “The LTTE forced me to shut down my shop claiming I had been secretly sending supplies to the government forces,” he said. With his main source of income now gone Viralasingham was concerned as to how his wife and child would survive in the war zone.
“In 2002 my wife and son, who were living in Colombo, were granted asylum in Australia. With the ceasefire ongoing I chose to stay back hoping to restart my shop,” Viralasingham explained. After running his shop for six years he began to make plans with his family for them to return to Sri Lanka. However, in the final stages of the war in 2009, Viralasingham’s shop was destroyed leaving him with little chance of rebuilding.
“I was desperate to join up with my family; it felt like there was nothing left for me in Sri Lanka. However, the Australian authorities did not grant me a visa or asylum,” he said. Viralasingham explained that after countless trips back and forth to Colombo in the hope of being granted approval to travel to Australia, he finally gave up in February 2010.
“I considered asking my family to return, but there was nothing for us here. They were making a life for themselves there and my son had just graduated from school,” said Viralasingham.
Having not seen his family for almost eight years he decided to turn to human smugglers hoping they could help him reach Australia. “Several of our close friends had resorted to employing the services of these people, and from the stories we have been told, they were living comfortable lives in Australia,” he said.
Viralasingham was unaware that many asylum seekers are forced to spend most of their time in asylum camps on Christmas Island, and very few cases are successfully processed.
“After finally being put in touch with some human smugglers, they explained that the journey would cost me Rs. 250,000,” he said and added that for the past year he had been forced to take on any menial job which was available so that he could feed himself. “I was forced to beg and borrow from friends and even strangers. Money lenders refused me knowing what I needed the money for. Any job I could do I did including cleaning toilets,” he explained.
It took Viralasingham over fourteen months to raise the money necessary for the trip, “those were the hardest months of my life. I had to save everything I earned; it often meant I would often have only one meal a day. I spoke to my wife and son only seven times in that period, choosing instead to save the money I earned. In June 2011, I travelled to Colombo where I met with the human smugglers and told them I had the money. They said that I would have to wait several weeks in the city as the boat was not ready. I spent what little money I had and hired a room out in Wellawatta from a family friend. After two weeks, on June 15, 2011, the smugglers told me they would pick me up that night and take me to the boat,” he said.
Viralasingham described how he along with several others were taken to the coast in a van. Having not been to Negombo before, he did not know where he was. “I did not know where I was and so I feared that they were going to kill us and take our money,” he said.
Viralasingham explained that they were loaded on to boats and taken far out to sea, where they then got on to a large fishing trawler. “We were pushed downstairs and told to find some space to sleep on; our money was handed over to the crew and our luggage was taken away. I never was allowed out on to the deck. They claimed it was for our safety,” he said. “After seven days of being crammed into the quarters below deck, the crew informed us that the Indian navy was approaching and they were being forced to turn back. None of us saw this naval vessel and we argued with the crew. They refused to continue with the journey saying that they were not going to get arrested for us,” he said.
Their protests were in vain as the trawler turned back. He explained that many of the refugees were convinced that the whole drama with the Indian navy had been staged. “Our return trip only took four days, and being below deck we could not tell how far we had actually gone. They did not even explain what the Indian navy had been doing near the southern coast of Sri Lanka,” he added.
Viralasingham was not given his money back and is now in Colombo looking for work. “I sold everything I owned in Kilinochchi for this trip. I have nothing left there so I am staying in Colombo hoping to restart my life,” he said. He is now expecting his family to come back to Sri Lanka in three weeks’ time. “My son is working in Australia and has saved enough money to buy air tickets for his mother and himself. They will be visiting me for one week,” he explained. Viralasingham does not want his family to stay in Sri Lanka convinced that they have a better life in Australia.
When asked if he would attempt another journey, Viralasingham laughed it off saying “you would think that I wouldn’t have learnt from my first experience. But my family is there and I am here. You tell me what you would do”?