Gemini doesn’t know if it was a dream crushed or a nightmare averted. He won’t try his luck again, not anytime soon. But he is not sure. “Or maybe I will,” he says. Rathnavel, his friend, has no doubts. “I’ll take the boat again,” he says, with a flinty indifference that is a poignant reminder of his and his people’s tragedy. His obstinacy is not fuelled by the promises of a glorious dream to a prodigal fortune hunter, but by the adjustments a refugee is forced to make with the lifelessness of his everyday circumstances.

“This place is like an open jail. Where is life here? And if I go back to Sri Lanka, I know what fate awaits a Tamil there.” 

Gemini and Rathnavel were two of the 151 people—including 19 women, 22 children, three Indian nationals and 28 Sri Lankan Tamils with passports—detained by Kerala police from a fishing boat off the Kollam coast on June 4. The boat was to take them to Christmas Island in Australia, 1,500 kilometres west of the nearest point on the mainland. The island is the port of call for asylum seekers, the Promised Land for Tamil refugees from both Sri Lanka and the camps in Tamil Nadu.

The sea was violent—the monsoon had just set in—and the dilapidated Kottaram (Palace) was not good enough for even the most tranquil of waters. The asylum-seekers, almost all the 151 of them, were crammed into the “ice boxes”, which is the boat’s fish hold.
“The moment I got into one of those ice boxes, I knew we wouldn’t make it. Maybe everyone felt the same. But we still were hoping,” says Gemini.

The sea was violent—the monsoon had just set in—and the dilapidated boat named Kottaram or Palace was not good enough for even the most tranquil of waters. The asylum-seekers, almost all the 151 of them, were crammed in the “ice boxes” or the boat’s fish hold.

Gemini and Rathnavel, inmates of the Puzhal refugee camp in Chennai, had paid Rs. 50,000 each to their agent, a fellow resident of Puzhal camp. They were told to reach Kollam by bus via Madurai and Tenkasi.

“The agent asked me to take infants too with me, if I had any in my family. Apparently, if there are infants things become easier once the boat hits Christmas Island. We hear that if there are women and children, the detention period won’t be long and asylum will be provided in quick time,” says Rathnavel.

They were asked to destroy all their ID cards, and were instructed to tell the Australian authorities that they were from Jaffna and not from a refugee camp in Tamil Nadu.

“There’s nothing new in this story,” says Gemini. “People have been going from these camps to Australia for a long time now. Some boats reach Australia; some are lost at sea. But when we hear from those who reached Australia, it’s easy to forget about those who didn’t make it. Life is great in Australia. They get good houses to stay, and a PR (permanent resident status) is not difficult. It’s hard not to be lured by the money they send to their relatives in camps.”

“And once we reach Australia, we can travel around the world too,” adds Rathnavel.

Intense coastal security and patrolling off Palk Straits has seen the Kerala coast emerge as the new operating base for human trafficking networks. According to Thomson Joseph, Assistant Superintendent of Police, Kollam, the geographical peculiarities of the Kerala coast, particularly Kollam, make it extremely difficult for police and the coast guard to thwart such operations.

“Earlier the boats left from spots in Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh—Mangalore, Kanyakumari, Nagapattinam, Cuddalore, Pondicherry, Chennai, Kakinada and Vizag. But after a couple of operations were busted by the Q department (Internal security wing of Tamil Nadu CID), the agents shifted their base to Kollam and Kerala. The fact that Kollam has a strong Tamil fishing community means it’s almost impossible, unless we have prior information, to track these refugees. In Tamil Nadu, they are easily identified as Sri Lankan refugees. But here they pass off as Tamil fishermen. Also, unlike Tamil Nadu, the large number of ferry points along the Kollam coast, makes it easy for the agents to board the people in small, different groups, thus avoiding suspicion.”

Another significant factor aiding human trafficking here is the easy availability of boats. Neendakara harbour in Kollam is one of the prominent boat trading centres in South India. “The ease of procuring the boats,” the ASP says, “is what has made Kollam such an attractive spot for the trafficking agents. But after the recent cases we have now made it mandatory for all boat transactions to be registered at the police station. As a result, the trade has slowed down considerably.”

Alex, owner of the fishing boat Kottaram, was approached by his neighbour and friend Das—Das was later arrested for abetting the trafficking racket—who asked him if he was interested in selling the boat to four Tamil fishermen. Alex had bought the boat three years ago and had been neck-deep in debt since. When he was offered Rs. 13 lakh—a price he now agrees that his boat did not command—he readily agreed. “Perhaps, I should have been more cautious,” says Alex. “But it was too good an offer to refuse and I was so much in debt that I had no other option but to sell my boat.”

The deal took place on June 1; on June 4 Alex was arrested. He now works in a boat yard, his job is to paint boats. He often wonders how he will raise the money to fight his case.

The boat didn’t have too much going for it. Its body was made of iron, which over time had acquired the colour of rusted orange. It had six “ice boxes” or fish holds, and a rectangular wooden cabin painted blue and white for the “Sraank” or the captain and his crew, all of whom were fishermen before the boat was sold. Worn and frayed tyres of various sizes hung from its railings. Next to the cabin there was space for the fishing net. In this condition it could take a fishing expedition or two, but not more.

Kottaram had to be made ready for its voyage to the Australian coast. At a yard near Neendakara harbour it was modified and repaired. Space was set aside for women and children, makeshift toilets were constructed, and within the claustrophobic confines of this battered boat a place was found to store food and drinking water—for 151 people. In its life as a fishing boat, a rather small one at that, Kottaram had never carried more than 10 people. It was structurally strengthened too. Its bottom was gouged out and replaced with a hunk of metal. Two fuel tanks were added for its transcontinental journey.

These changes, it was hoped, would make this fishing boat which had never ventured too far from the local seas sail to Australia with 151 people on board in a season when the ocean is unwelcoming.

Two locals were hired to navigate the tricky backwaters, to lead Kottaram to the sea. Huge tins of food—bread, jam, pickle, and dry fruits—were loaded along with cans of drinking water. No one really believed that the rations would last the trip. (Modifcations would not prove to be enough, either. The boat started leaking the day after it was seized by the police.)

“When I got into the ice box, I wondered if this was the boat that would take me all the way to Australia, or whether there would be another bigger ship waiting in the outer sea for us,” says Rathnavel. “I had no idea how the food or the fuel was going to last for so long a journey. There were women and children and even a couple of babies on board and there was hardly any breathing space. I knew that the sea was rough too, and all sorts of things crossed my mind.”

The passengers couldn’t sit inside the fish holds. They were told to stand inside, toe-on-toe till Kottaram reached the high seas. The hold was not deep enough for an adult to stand, and it had no ventilation either. Once on the high seas, refugees could come out on deck, breathe fresh air and soak in the emptiness of the horizon over which lay Chirtsmans Island.

The refugees were asked by the agent to split into groups, with each group assigned specific boarding points. The incident came to light when a group of young men at Mukkadupally Kadavu noticed a group of panicked refugees running towards the ferry point near Mukkadupally Church at around 10 p.m.

Describing the scene as one of the strangest he has seen in his life, Gilbert, one of the witnesses, says: “After the day’s work, it is usual for us to sit here by the backwater and have some toddy. Then we saw two autorickshaws stopping near the church, people getting down and people running towards the ferry point in a state of great panic. Just a while earlier we had noticed a boat coming to the diesel pump and leaving in a jiffy. (Kottaram had taken 4,000 litres of diesel there. There were two additional fuel cans in the boat which were to be filled with diesel somewhere en route.)

In the last two months, I have wondered if those ice boxes in the fishing boats that take us to Australia are strange symbols of our own lives in the camps. Refugee camps are not how ordinary human societies are meant to be.

“But since fishing boats go to the sea at night too, we weren’t too bothered about that. The group—there were around 15 of them including two girls—then told us that they were supposed to go in that boat to Australia and that they had given whatever they had to their agent and were now left out of the journey. We informed the police immediately. The people were then taken to the priest’s room where they were crying and yelling.”

The boat was intercepted near Neendakara harbour. The captain and the agents, according to the police, had by then escaped. People at the harbour were stunned to see police take the refugees out of the boat. Even the police were taken aback by the number of people inside the boat. The deck was littered with abandoned plastic sandals, drenched clothes of adults and children, and mobile phones. “It was like a scene straight of a Mani Rathnam movie,” says Gilbert. When Rathanvel is told of this, he says dryly, “I am not a movie buff.”

Before he left for Kollam from Puzhal camp, Gemini was advised by one of his close friends who had reached Australia in January after a similar boat journey to “not to think about anything, not even about food or water” while on the boat. Gemini’s friend was fortunate to have a relatively safe journey, the sea was rough only in the last three days.

Gemini says his friend had made peace with all the potential deaths—death by sickness, death by starvation, death by drowning, death by murder and even death by suicide—that lay in store for him Yet, even without thinking about anything, it was difficult for him to find some sleep.

“He said he must have slept for about 20 hours during the 16-day voyage. I had no idea what he meant when he asked me to stop thinking about anything. But once I got into the boat, I realised that it was not that difficult a thing to do. I knew that whatever happened from that point, it would be a second life for me. And that was exactly the feeling I had when the police took us out of the boat at Neendakara.”

Gemini had decided not to tell any of his relatives in the camp, or his parents in Talaimannar, or his girlfriend in Colombo about his voyage. A father and two sons from a family that stays next to Gemini’s shed—a matchbox sized hut made of cement and tin sheets—set sail for Australia a couple of years ago and have since been missing.

“The boat must have capsized. Or they must have died inside the boat. Or maybe it could be like one of the stories we hear where they say people are dumped into the sea for dissenting. But the family still thinks that those missing members will one day call them from somewhere or come back to their camp,” Gemini says, pointing at the youngest boy of that family.

On his friend’s advice, Gemini also decided to pack his bag light—clothes, a couple of books and some money. He wanted to take more money, but decided against it. Some of the others in the boat, though, had stuffed their bags with whatever money and jewellery they had. One reason for this, Gemini says, could be that some of the refugees would be asked by their agents to pay a part of their payment once they reach Australia.

“I don’t know much about that. I was asked to pay the whole Rs. 50,000 at one go. But a couple of others in the camp who were also in the boat later told me that they were asked to pay Rs. 50,000 to the agent here and the rest to someone in Australia.”

The possibility of an international trafficking network is highlighted by ASP Thomson Joseph too. “Though we cannot divulge too much information, our investigation reveals a well-oiled network in place. It would be impossible for agents to traffic refugees from India to Australia without the assistance of people in Australia. We are also investigating the possibility of bigger ships stationed at deep sea which help these boats to fill fuel or even take the people in the boats to Australia.”

The first major arrest made in connection with the smuggling of Sri Lankan Tamil refugees was that of Arumainayagam Soundarajan’s (a.k.a Italy Rajan) in April 2010. Rajan landed in Tamil Nadu after his network that smuggled asylum seekers from the coasts of Sri Lanka was busted. According to a Q department official of the Tamil Nadu police who requested anonymity, Rajan recruited agents and sub-agents from various refugee camps across Tamil Nadu and sent people from the coasts of Mangalore, Kakinada, Kanyakumari, Kochi and Kollam. Ex-LTTE cadres were assigned the task of navigation as they had in-depth of knowledge of sea lanes. After Rajan was nabbed by the Q department, various agents started operating independently, enticing refugees with offers like “citizenship on arrival”.

Both Rathnavel and Gemini, though, dismiss the police version of agents luring inmates of refugee camps with various package deals.

“Everyone wants to go,” says Rathnavel. “It is not as if these so called agents come scouting for us. In fact in most case, as in mine, we are the ones who seek out our agents. I have my relatives in Australia who had gone earlier this year. They were the one who had asked me to contact this particular agent.”

The exodus of Sri Lankan Tamils to India started in 1983 following the anti-Tamil pogroms that killed thousands. As the situation in Jaffna deteriorated, the rate of migration too intensified. Currently, over 68,000 Sri Lankan Tamils live in 111 camps spread across Tamil Nadu, while around 30,000 are estimated to be living outside the camps.

As for the allegations raised by some like S C Chandrahasan, who heads the NGO OfERR (Organisation for Eelam Refugees Rehabilitation), that the agents are making a fortune out of the misery of the refugees, Rathnavel says: “I really don’t care if these people are making money or not. Most of us are willing to mortgage or sell everything we have to make this voyage. These agents are the ones who are taking the risks. They are the ones who will be arrested if the plan fails. We will either die or reach Australia or will be sent back to our camps. It is not as if we don’t know that what the reality is, or the agents are duping us. Everyone makes money in different ways.”

Reports in the media and the pronouncements of governments on the trafficking of people while ignoring the everyday life of refugees sickens Gemini. The issue, he says, cannot be grasped if one turns a blind eye to the life in the camps. “In the last two months, I have often wondered if those ice boxes in the fishing boats that take us to Australia are strange symbols of our own lives in the camps. Refugee camps are not how ordinary human societies are meant to be like,” says Gemini who holds a Masters degree in Computer Science and was employed with a leading private bank in Sri Lanka before he was forced to seek asylum in 2008. He, along with Rathnavel, now work as daily wage labourers in an onion exporting factory.

“The Indian government does a lot for us. No question about that. We are given shelter, electricity and water and I know there are lakhs of Indians who can’t afford even that. But you must also remember that a lot of the refugees in these camps are well educated. Because of the way our camps are structured, and because of our refugee status, we can only work as daily labourers. It’s only human that such highly educated people would seek other options where they can put their skills to better use and secure themselves financially,” he says.

Comparing the conditions of Tibetan and Sri Lankan refugees, Athithan Jayapalan, part of the larger Sri Lankan diaspora and currently studying social anthropology in Norway, suggests that the Tibetan refugee situation and the rights they enjoy must be set as a model which, with no delay, should also be extended to the Sri Lankan Tamils.

“In many places in India such as Bengaluru, Delhi, Goa, Puducherry and Udhagamandalam (Ooty), Tibetans run shops of various kinds, though most of their businesses seem to be confined to the marketing of garments and ornaments. It is only because they enjoy the right to employment that they are independently involved in economic activities that sustain their lives.

“In stark comparison is the life faced by Tamil refugees in India. As soon as they arrive in the country, they are registered with the police and then holed up in refugee camps that are congested, difficult to live in and lack basic facilities such as toilets, water, and educational institutions. There are frequent processes of registration and checkups by police and security authorities that creates an atmosphere where Sri Lankan Tamil refugees are rendered as a collectively criminalised community.

“Their legal inability to work structurally ensures they are collectively looked upon as an exploited, informal and unorganised labour force. This limits money procurement, which in turn restricts the educational pursuit of many. Refugee youth then turn to ‘kooli vela’ (daily wage labourers). Those who do not have family members in the Tamil diaspora are also obliged to look after their families in Sri Lanka too, thus adding further complications. They are often left with no choice but to stay on and become subject to the oppressive conditions in the camps, since they can neither return to Sri Lanka, nor leave India to go elsewhere.”

The mass exodus of Sri Lankan Tamil refugees to India started in 1983 following the anti-Tamil pogroms that killed thousands. As the situation in war-ravaged Jaffna deteriorated, the rate of migration too intensified. Currently, over 68,000 Sri Lankan Tamils live in 111 camps spread across Tamil Nadu, while around 30,000 are estimated to be living outside the camps. In addition to coming to terms with the decrepit living conditions in the camps—cramped living space, dearth of employment opportunities, abject poverty—the refugees, Gemini says, also have to deal with the ramifications of a rapidly disintegrating moral structure of their society.

“Alcoholism has become rampant. Also, there are a lot of illicit affairs that go on in the camps, resulting in crumbling marriages and frequent fights. It is not just the lure of economic benefits that make us risk our lives and undertake this impossible voyage; it is also the lure of a normal social life.”

The situation perhaps is best explained by Police Inspector Y Kamarudheen who brought the 123 rescued Sri Lankan refugees (28 were remanded to judicial custody) from Kollam to Palayamkottai from where they were sent back to their respective camps.
“The refugees kept telling us it was better to die or to be put in prison than to go back to the camps, ” he says.

With the recent cases of refugee smuggling from the southern coast of India, the police and the Intelligence wings are also probing the possibility of the LTTE trying to re-group, with Australia and Canada as their new bases.

According to ASP Thomson Joseph, the likelihood of a couple of LTTE cadres sneaking into boats that ferry refugees cannot be overlooked. He points out that there were people on the boat who were being taken for free.

“If this was merely a human trafficking racket, it is only logical that everyone pays something to the agent. But when the refugees were questioned, some of them said that they had not paid anything. It suggests something fishy.”

The ASP also says that the expertise of ex- LTTE cadres in navigating the ocean is also likely to be used by the agents. “The local people involved in this case were assigned to take the boat through the backwater tracks to the sea. Once the vessel reached the open sea their job was supposed to be over.

“To navigate the boat across the oceans, one requires sufficient knowhow, which is what LTTE cadres possess. So though nothing has been proven as yet, the fact remains that the trafficking of Sri Lankan Tamils refuges does pose security threats. No one really knows how many boats have gone from here.”

The suggestion of the LTTE being involved in refugee trafficking elicits contrasting responses from Gemini and Rathnavel. Gemini wonders if he, as a Sri Lankan Tamil, can live anywhere in the world without in some way being suspected of association with the LTTE.

“It is the easiest way to make sure we’re ostracised. I tell you that I am a Tamil and I am from Sri Lanka and you ask me what I have got to do with LTTE.”

Rathnavel’s response is bereft of any equivocation. “In India my political status is that of a refugee. I am a Sri Lankan citizen. In Sri Lanka, the Sinhalese consider Mahinda Rajapaksa their hero. I am a Sri Lankan Tamil. And I consider Prabhakaran as my hero. I don’t care one bit what others think about that.”

According to figures issued by the Australian Department of Immigration, the number of asylum-seekers arriving by boat to Australia has hit a new record high in 2012. Till July this year, 6,765 people arrived by boat. The previous high was recorded in 2010 when 6,555 people came.

Stephen Smith, Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, in an interview with Amanda Hodge, South Asian correspondent for The Australian, said: “If people come to Australia and they’re not refugees, they’re sent back home. If they are refugees and they are processed in accordance with our international legal obligations, if they are refugees they are given that status. We are a long standing signatory to the Refugee Convention. We don’t just comply with our international law requirements, we regard that as an obligation to do so and we do. But, what we also have to do is, Australians and the Australian government want to make sure there is integrity in our immigration process and that includes in our refugee process. Historically it is something which has always caused concern for Australians.”

In addition to Christmas Island, there’s a recent trend among Tamils and refugee smuggling networks to sail to Cocos Island. The voyage to Cocos Island is about 1,000 kilometres shorter than Christmas island. Consequently, the Cocos Islands’ animal quarantine station has been co-opted as temporary accommodation for asylum-seekers.

Those who arrive at Cocos Island now stay there for a short time before being flown to Christmas Island. Contrary to the portrayals of a peaceful and prosperous life in Australia, there are reports that paint a grim picture of the life in detention centres. There have been mass protests by Tamils against the inordinate delays in processing Tamil refugees and granting visas. People have been diagnosed with chronic depression and suicides too have been reported from detention centres.

Meanwhile, the Sri Lankan navy has requested the Australian government to send back large numbers of asylum-seekers as a solution to the menace of refugee smuggling. According to Sri Lankan Naval intelligence director Nishantha Ulugetenne, sending just one man back from Australia (in June 2012, Dayan Anthony became the first Tamil to be deported to Sri Lanka) will not help.

“More than 1500 Sri Lankans have landed in Australia in the last six months. What are you going to do with them? Screen them one by one?” he has been quoted as saying.

Last August, the Julia Gillard government, in an effort to tackle the increasing problem of refugees being smuggled into Australian shores, announced new legislation, with the thrust being on removing incentives for asylum-seekers.

Some of the major recommendations include the reopening of Nauru and Manus Island offshore processing centres and the extension of visa waiting times, which make it harder for successful asylum-seekers to obtain family reunion visas. Correspondingly, the number of humanitarian visas available each year to refugees applying through traditional channels will rise to 20,000.

After the smuggling operation was busted in Kollam last June, police have foiled several more attempts in the months that followed to smuggle refugees out of Karaikal, Nagapattinam and Mangalore.

On September 8, the Mangalore police, in an overnight operation nabbed the vessel Shreerajksha, which was carrying 97 people including 95 refugees to Australia. The refugees came from camps near Chennai, Madurai, Pudukottai, Palar Anicut, Tirunelveli, and Hosur in Tamil Nadu. Six thousand litres of fuel was stocked in the boat.

According to the police, it was the third attempt of that particular group to migrate, after two earlier attempts to set sail from Kerala were foiled.

On September 14, fishermen from Nagapattinam rescued 61 Sri Lankan Tamils and four Sinhalese who were marooned in open seas after the engine of the boat carrying them to Australia developed a snag. The stranded Lankans were on a mechanised boat 120 nautical miles from the Nagapattinam.

The rescued, during investivation, told the police that a travel agency had offered to take them to Australia without legal documents. On the third day of their journey, the GPS failed, upon which they abandoned the voyage to Australia and instead decided to return to Nagapattinam. But later, the engine too failed which left them stranded in mid-sea.

According to Gemini and Rathnavel, there have been more boats that have set sail to Australia in the recent months. A couple of friends who were with them on the boat that was intercepted at Kollam managed to reach Australia in July.

It is the Great Australian Dream, Gemini says, and it won’t be wiped out till the last Tamil refugee is wiped out. But for those left behind life in the camps repeats its suffocating patterns every day. Occasionally, they find something to indulge in. The T20 World Cup in Sri Lanka is a welcome distraction.

Interestingly, neither of them count Mutthiah Muralitharan as a Sri Lankan Tamil icon. “He is more an Indian Tamil. The way he speaks Tamil is not how we speak Tamil,” says Gemini, who is a Sanath Jayasuriya fan.

Rathnavel’s lips purse into one of his signature acerbic smiles. “Australia, you know, is the country that no-balled Muralitharan.” 

(Gemini and Rathnavel are not the real names of these men.)