Negombo, Sri Lanka: As their engine broke down in rough seas and several began vomiting blood, the 12 young men on board a small trawler heading for Australia feared they would not make it out alive.
“If the [Australian] Border Force had been a day or two later, one of us might have died,” said 31-year-old Sri Lankan fisherman Pathmanathan Anthony Pradeep. “Some were so sick and there was only water left for two days.”
In interviews with The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age in Sri Lanka, the men have told how they spent a perilous 19 days on the Indian Ocean before being intercepted west of Christmas Island on the morning of Australia’s federal election.
Their journey is the subject of an investigation by the new Labor government, which is probing the timing and circumstances of a controversial Border Force statement that almost immediately publicised the capture of their vessel on May 21 on the instructions of then-prime minister Scott Morrison’s office.
The announcement was an apparent diversion from a Border Force policy to not comment on operations in progress and was seized upon by the Liberal Party, which bombarded voters in marginal seats with text messages, urging them to “keep our borders secure by voting Liberal today”.
All friends and family aged in their 20s and 30s, the fishermen had been attempting to travel to Australia to escape the hardship of a crippling economic crisis in Sri Lanka that has brought the island nation of 22 million to its knees.
Now back in the coastal city of Negombo after being deported by air from Christmas Island on May 24, those who were on the boat said they were unaware they were being used as an election-day political pawn.
Barely able to put food on the table for their families as the bankrupt nation Sri Lanka reels from critical shortages of food, fuel, medicine and soaring prices, they said they had set off from the western coastal town of Kalpitiya before dawn on May 2 out of sheer desperation.
They did not pay people smugglers, they said, but organised the journey themselves on a boat one of them owned. An election in Australia was the last thing on their minds.
“How could we predict the day? We just wanted to save our lives and get to shore,” said father-of-two Pathmanathan. “We didn’t even know there was an election on. We didn’t know how many days it would take to reach Australia.”
Their testimony debunks a theory that Australian and Sri Lankan authorities could have colluded in arranging for the trawler to appear near Christmas Island only hours before Australians cast their ballots.
“We didn’t even know there was an election on. We didn’t know how many days it would take to reach Australia.”
Pathmanathan Anthony Pradeep
The fishermen believed Australia would take them in despite the Australian government’s policy of turning back boats under Operation Sovereign Borders.
“People used to go to Australia and get accepted, so that’s why we chose Australia,” said Warnakulasuriya Meril Christopher, 39, a father of three who borrowed 150,000 rupees ($578) to pay his share towards fuel and supplies of the boat.
“We thought that since the Australians knew that we were going through tremendous hardship here, that people had no more food to eat, that they would accept us. It didn’t matter what I did there, even if it was sweeping or cleaning toilets. My main objective was to provide a life for my children. We didn’t think the Australian government would send us back like this.”
A decade ago, before Australia launched its boat turnback policy, as many as 120 boats a year ventured from Sri Lanka towards Australia, as people tried to escape civil war between the military and Tamil separatists, and the continued persecution of Tamils after the conflict ended in 2009.
Now, as the South Asian democracy’s economy unravels, fuelling rising anger against the long-ruling Rajapaksa clan, Sri Lankans are being pushed to the edge again. In early May, the Sri Lanka Navy arrested 54 people who had embarked from the north-east town of Mullaitivu and were en route to Australia. Another boat headed for Australia was stopped in Sri Lankan waters on May 18, with 67 passengers and crew arrested including five suspected of involvement in human smuggling.
Most of the men on the boat that made it close to Christmas Island are fishermen but Sri Lanka has all but run out of fuel in the past month. Most trawlers have no longer been able to get out to sea and what work they had has dried up.
Araganthan Pradeep, a 29-year-old who dries fish for a living, chose to go despite his wife Yenuki Shenaya Bandara being six months pregnant with their first child.
“I vomited from the beginning until the end and I couldn’t eat anything for the last three days so I vomited blood,” he said. “I went because I wanted to do the right thing by my wife and unborn child. I felt scared to leave her but I thought if I stayed, the situation here would be so bad that I wouldn’t be able to look after her or the child in the future.”
His wife, who is 28, said: “When I go to the doctor I have to spend a lot of for money for my appointments. It’s my first child after four years of marriage, so I allowed him to go so he could make a path for us.”
On board, they battled for two days to repair the boat’s engine and only managed to fix a dangerous oil leak when they discovered an old roll of double-sided tape. They were drenched most of the time, they said, as they crowded at the front of the trawler to prevent it from capsizing.
One of the youngest on board, 21-year-old Warnakulasuriya Julian Priyanshan Fernando, an out-of-work sound engineer, pawned his family’s jewellery, with their permission, on the afternoon before they departed in order to contribute 200,000 rupees ($777) towards the trip.
“We’d had this idea in our heads for a while but we hadn’t intended to put it into action,” he said. “The actual thing happened very suddenly. I went and pawned the jewellery that afternoon and next morning at 4am we left.”
He had been working as a cashier in a mobile phone shop but with costs skyrocketing in Sri Lanka, the 20,000 rupees ($77) a month he was earning did not go far.
“The way Sri Lanka is going now I can’t live with the salary I get and it’s not enough to look after my parents,” he said. “The money was good for a week or two but that’s it. My father is a fisherman but there is no fuel so it’s difficult for him to go to work.
“Even though we are surviving in this situation, we’re not sure what will happen in a month or two. We don’t know if what we earn will be enough for even a week.”
When they learnt that they would be flown home, “we wanted to cry because we had suffered so much,” Julian said.
The said Australian officials were very polite and treated the men well, giving them food and drinks when they were transported to a Border Force vessel, on which they spent three days before being given life jackets, taken by boat to Christmas Island and deported.
They weren’t, however, allowed to call their relatives at home to tell them they were alive, they said.
“All the mothers were terrified because they left in the windy season, the monsoon season,” said Warnakulasuriya Mallika Rojini Fernando, Julian’s mother. “There was no phone contact once they left here so there was no way of contacting them.”
In a statement on Wednesday evening, Border Force said it did not comment on operational matters “that could disclose tactics, techniques and procedures to the organised criminals and people smugglers it aims to deter”.
“The overriding priority for all agencies involved in Operation Sovereign Borders is the safety and wellbeing of all persons, including potential unauthorised maritime arrivals, vessel crews as well as Australian personnel,” a spokesperson said.
“The Australian government is serious about protecting Australia’s borders, combatting people smuggling and preventing vulnerable people from risking their lives at sea. This will not change.”
The Sri Lankan Navy and Defence Ministry were also contacted for comment.
The men from Negombo are safe now, but saddled with mounting legal fees and facing court accused of travelling to Australia illegally by sea, they are in a worse position than before.
The owner and skipper of the boat, 30-year-old Warnakulasuriya Nishantha Thamel, remains in detention in Sri Lanka and has lost his trawler, which was destroyed by Border Force.
“I don’t have much hope,” said his wife Warnakulasuriya Iresha Dulanjal Fernando, 27, fighting back tears as she held their two-year-old daughter Leeza.
“We don’t have our boat now. My only hope is to get my husband out. He’s the one who is suffering the most … mentally he’s defeated. I told my daughter that he has gone to work.”
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