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Emaciated Tamils in Indonesian waters raise queasy questions

world Updated: Nov 10, 2009 14:46 IST
Sutirtho Patranobis

The situation of a group of emaciated Tamil men, women and children floating on an Australian ship in Indonesian waters has raised queasy questions. They are the latest among the "boat people" – or asylum seekers who try to cross the seas on thin boats for foreign shores – to have triggered international headlines and headaches.

Colombo had questioned whether they were Sri Lankans in the first place. But on Monday, at a meeting with Australian foreign minister Stephen Smith – who flew down to Colombo to resolve the deadlock – President Mahinda Rajapaksa expressed willingness to take back the victims of ``migrant smuggling’’ once the formalities about their citizenship and place of origin were completed.

That the asylum seekers are victims, there is no doubt. But what, or of who, are they victims of? The government said they were victims of an international people smuggling ring. The foreign ministry said that one of them, who led a hunger strike demanding that those on boards be granted refugee status, was expelled from Canada in 2003. “Alex had been involved in human smuggling for a long time and it is believed that his office is based in India,” the statement said, adding that "his brother now in Canada is also involved in human smuggling."

Tamil politicians in Colombo said that many displaced Tamils are paying with their life savings -- and sometimes their lives as it happened to 12 Tamils who died after their boat capsized – to get away from Sri Lanka.

"Some escaping in boats may be those who managed to get out of the detention camps," politician Mano Ganeshan told a news agency. "Tamils feel vulnerable even after the end of the war. That is why they want to get out of the country," he added.

Sri Lanka, reports said, had overtaken Afghanistan and Iraq as the number one source of illegal immigrants entering Australian territory. That’s one more dubious distinction that a post-war Sri Lanka might want to delete in the near future.