I paid people smugglers $7,000 for two seats on a boat that never reached Australia
Watch Adrift in Australian Waters Tuesday 10th October, 9.30pm on SBS or stream via .
In Sri Lanka, there is a quiet desperation that continues to push some of the country’s poorest and most vulnerable into the clutches of people smugglers.
32-year-old single mother Gayathri from the east coast port town of Valaichchenai is one such person. Earlier this year, Gayathri was connected with a smuggler who made some bold promises.
“He said it’s a big boat, it’s a safe boat. He said he knew the route and had taken people from Indonesia to Australia,” Gayathri says.
Only this time, the promised destination wasn’t Australia, but rather New Zealand.
“He said, ‘There won’t be any icebergs near New Zealand at this time of the year. Therefore, we can reach there safely’.”“We knew that the journey is dangerous. We didn’t want to go out in the sea. We were desperate to leave this place. We were determined to leave.”
Gayathri believed she and her daughter were on their way to a better life. Credit: SBS Dateline
“There are no opportunities for us here. In our country even the educated are unemployed.”
Gayathri couldn’t afford to put clothes on her daughter’s back. But she was determined to support her education, even though basic things such as pencils had become luxury items.“She is much more precious than my own life,” says Gayathri. “I taught her how precious pencils and erasers are before she used them. I would say, ‘Don't sharpen it unnecessarily, don’t lose them’.”
Caught in a crisis
Last year, Sri Lanka collapsed both economically and politically. After the government defaulted on its debts, the rupee plummeted and inflation skyrocketed. The country erupted in protest amidst chronic shortages of fuel and food, leaving Sri Lanka in disarray. The president fled as angry demonstrators stormed his residence.
But talk of revolution on the other side of the country in Colombo made little difference for Gayathri, who says she was unable to afford the basic medication needed to treat her daughter’s asthma, let alone put food on the table.
“We were badly affected by the economic crisis. We can only eat with what we can afford. To live, we must eat.”“Existence had become an issue. So, I decided that was enough. Instead of dying in this dump, we’ll take our chances and go. If we die in the process, so be it.”
Fleeing Sri Lanka by boat
The reasons Sri Lankans get on boats seeking a better life are multi-dimensional and have varied over the last 20 years.
The 35-year civil war between the Tamil minority and Sinhalese majority ended in 2009. More than 100,000 people were killed and thousands more disappeared in the conflict. Though there were allegations of war crimes by both sides, a UN panel says at least 40,000 Tamil civilians were killed in the final months of fighting.There was an exodus at the end of the war, with more than 7,000 Sri Lankan asylum seekers arriving in Australia by boat by 2012 – most of them Tamil. Since the introduction of Australia's military-led Operation Sovereign Borders (OSB) in 2013, boat arrivals to Australia dropped from 300 that year to around four per year.
A message on the OSB website reads: "Anyone who attempts an unauthorised boat voyage to Australia will be turned back to their point of departure, returned to their home country, or transferred to a third country for processing.
"Since 2013, Australia has intercepted every boat attempting to enter illegally. Every vessel is closely watched. There is zero chance of illegal migration to Australia."
The government also operates a website in Sri Lanka, titled Zero Chance Sri Lanka. A message on the site states: "68 boats intercepted by Australia. Australia's borders are closed to illegal migration – there is only one way to Australia – with a valid Australian visa."
In 2021, the government was criticised for operating a competition as part of the Zero Chance campaign that offered Sri Lankans prizes such as cameras for making short films aimed at deterring fellow citizens from trying to reach Australia by boat.
But Australian Federal Police based in Sri Lanka say in the past 18 months there's been a jump in the number of people trying to leave the country by boat. They say Sri Lankan authorities stopped 19 people smuggling vessels before they left local waters, while seven vessels have been intercepted by Australia in international and Australian waters.The AFP officers in Sri Lanka work to stop people smuggling at the source, including handing out pamphlets warning people any attempt to come to Australia by boat won't be successful.
The Australian Federal Police are at work in Sri Lanka, trying to discourage people smuggling. Credit: SBS Dateline
The perilous journey
Gayathri says it took six months before her boat was ready to leave in April.
“So, we purchased a large suitcase. They said that we needed warm clothes, going to New Zealand. Sweater, jacket and the like. We spent a lot of money on them alone.
“They wanted us to buy any medication that we needed. Anything that the child required, including extra food items. They would provide three meals and water.”
Gayathri was told to bring her daughter to a local beach, where the pair waited overnight on the sand with 39 other people. Eventually, they all boarded three small boats and were ferried out to a trawler moored off the coast awaiting its human cargo.
“I started to throw up in the tiny boat itself. Though she was not sick, I was concerned that I had put my child into this dreadful situation.”
For two days, as the trawler slowly sailed out of Sri Lankan waters, Gayathri believed she and her daughter were on their way to a better life. But her hopes were very suddenly brought crashing down.
“On the third day, the engine was having some trouble. They said that the engine had overheated.”
The captain worked overnight to get the engine started again. Then the passengers realised the food reserves weren’t as promised: “They said that they had dried fish, biltong meat, and so on. But no one had really checked if they had enough of them.”
As more days passed, water also began running low: “I would save our water for my little girl. She struggled. She was traumatised. She kept asking when we would reach New Zealand.”
“Everyone realised we were being taken for a ride. There were quarrels and problems.”“The mood changed and anxiety took the better of us as we didn’t know what the future held. I wondered at that time whether I had shifted the burdens of my life onto my child. She was not born to experience all these horrendous things.”
As the boat neared Indonesian waters, Gayathri says they were caught in a hurricane. “Lots of rain and heavy wind. I was not sure we would survive. I was pleading with God.”
That was when the passengers realized the boat’s communications system wasn’t working – and had probably never worked. Unable to call for help, with food and water almost depleted, their problems deepened when the engine developed a leak.Gayathri says the passengers pleaded with the captain to stop the boat wherever they could. So, after 21 days at sea, the vessel limped towards the Australian territory of Christmas Island, where they were intercepted by an Australian navy vessel.
Interception at sea
Boat journeys like Gayathri’s have been one of the most contested political issues in Australia for more than 20 years.
Since the start of Operation Sovereign Borders, successive governments have heavily restricted information about what happens when boats are intercepted. Human rights groups say Australia no longer carries out fully fledged asylum seeker processing at sea, but rather a watered-down screening process in which it seems no protection claims are recognised.
Despite this, the Australian government maintains that no one processed at sea is subject to refoulement – the forced return of an asylum seeker or refugee to a country where they would face persecution.
Gayathri says the 41 people on their boat were transferred to a navy vessel and were questioned one by one.
“This is what we requested: ‘We didn’t come to your country seeking asylum. If your country can’t accept us, ask the New Zealand government on our behalf’."“They rejected us but didn't tell us anything,” she says. “We were not aware of anything.”
“Their boats were constantly moving in a circle all nine days. Day and night the boat was on the move. It was evening one day and we were all puzzled as to why the boat was suddenly moving at a faster pace. The boat was speeding towards a cloud of smoke in the middle of the ocean. Then we realised that they wanted to show us that the boat we travelled on has been burned to the ground and they wanted to show it burning to us."
Gayathri says they were swiftly taken to Christmas Island and put on a flight straight back to Sri Lanka. When they landed, they were detained and questioned by Sri Lanka’s Police Criminal Investigation Department (CID).
This was a terrifying proposition for the boat’s passengers, as the CID has previously faced accusations of human rights abuses against Tamils, including kidnapping and torture dating back to the civil war. After 24 hours in jail, they were released on bail.After being sent back to Sri Lanka, Gayathri says life has only become harder and soon she will face trial on charges of illegal migration.
Gayathri and her daughter are now back in Sri Lanka. Credit: SBS Dateline
“People smugglers tell all kinds of lies. I understand that now. He had cheated us, and it was all planned.”“Maybe we can't stop people smugglers. But we can share stories like mine to warn other people.”
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