DAVID MARK: There are new fears that Southern India could be the next staging post for asylum seekers who want to come to Australia. Tamil community leaders in Australia, say people smugglers have moved into the Indian states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu, and are taking advantage of the desperation of refugees there
Just last week a boat with 150 asylum seekers bound for Australia was stopped by Indian police off the coast. Local Tamil leaders say many more will try to make the journey here.
Matthew Carney reports.
MATTHEW CARNEY: About 60,000 Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka live in the Southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Many live in camps in squalid conditions with little hope of gaining residency.
Sara Nathan from the global Tamil network says most want to leave and are looking towards Australia.
SARA NATHAN: India has not signed the refugee convention, which means the refugees who go there are not able to work there, their kids can’t go to public schools there, they can’t attend university there, so they don’t really have a permanent life there; they’re just in transit and therefore if they want to have a permanent life somewhere and get on with their lives, unfortunately they have no option but to get on boats and come to countries like Australia.
MATTHEW CARNEY: The Tamil refugees in Tamil Nadu fled the horrors of Sri Lanka’s 25 year conflict. The United Nations has started a repatriation program back to Sri Lanka but many refugees are too scared to go back to their homeland, as they fear retribution.
Victor Rajakulendran is the spokesperson for the Tamil associations in Australasia and says the situation is desperate in the refugee camps.
VICTOR RAJAKULENDRAN: Sometimes they complain and recently there was some fasting until death and some people were climbing on trees and that sort of thing. They don’t get proper treatment there like food or other facilities.
MATTHEW CARNEY: So they were on hunger strikes were they?
VICTOR RAJAKULENDRAN: Yeah they were on hunger strikes yes.
MATTHEW CARNEY: So responding to a market, people smugglers have been moving into Tamil Nadu.
Just 10 days ago, a boat with about 150 asylum seekers, including 19 women and 22 children, left the town of Kollam in the neighbouring state of Kerala, bound for Australia. Each refugee paid between $5,000 and $20,000. Indian police intercepted the boat near the Kollam coast and the refugees are now in detention.
VICTOR RAJAKULENDRAN: There were people arrested on the way to Australia by boat; they were taken to refugee camps.
MATTHEW CARNEY: Victor Rajakulendran says because Sri Lankan authorities have cracked down on people smugglers and stopped some boats, that the people smugglers have moved their operations to relative safety of Southern India.
VICTOR RAJAKULENDRAN: There is a lot of surveillance around Sri Lankan waters to stop these boats with the help of Australian surveillance techniques. If they know that they will not be successful in leaving Sri Lankan then they may catch other ways of transport to India and then try to flee from India.
MATTHEW CARNEY: Australian border protection authorities confirmed 12 asylum seeker boats had arrived from South Asia in the last year. But a spokesperson said most have come from Sri Lanka and “there is no evidence to suggest that there is a trend of Sri Lankan asylum seekers leaving from India to Australia”.
But Sara Nathan says the authorities are not keeping up with events unfolding in Southern India.
SARA NATHAN: I have no doubt that people will get on boats and are from Tamil Nadu or from any other country and come as long as we don’t go and process their applications or take UNHCR-mandated refugees to Australia. They’ll continue to come on board.
DAVID MARK: That was Sara Nathan from the Tamil Global Network ending Matthew Carney’s report.
ABC radio PM 13 June 2012