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Horror tales behind Australia's refugee influx

Cowering in the dark bowels of a leaky fishing boat, surrounded by grown men vomiting and catatonic with fear, Sri Lankan refugee Tharumalingam Punniyamoorthy was too weak to cry.

world Updated: Jul 18, 2010 12:18 IST

Cowering in the dark bowels of a leaky fishing boat, surrounded by grown men vomiting and catatonic with fear, Sri Lankan refugee Tharumalingam Punniyamoorthy was too weak to cry.

He shudders as he recalls the "hell" of his voyage, when he became one of thousands of poor Asian asylum-seekers fleeing to Australia -- unwittingly setting off a public backlash which will dominate next month's elections.

Punniyamoorthy, 30, now locked in an immigration centre, said he spent 18 days with 42 other Tamil men in the hold of a 36-foot (11 metres) trawler normally used for dried fish, with no fresh water and just a pinch of rice to eat every few days.

They had been promised a short journey to Australia by people-smuggling agents, and had little more than the clothes on their backs as their ramshackle craft struggled across the vast Indian Ocean from Sri Lanka last September.

Diarrhoea and chicken pox were rife. One man had gone into deep shock, wetting himself constantly, his eyes rolled back into his head and rocking back and forth. Punniyamoorthy said most believed he would soon be dead.

"We would take turns tapping him, opening his eyes, making sure he was still alive," he told the news agency from Sydney's Villawood detention centre.

"I remember suddenly thinking I'm going to die in the middle of the ocean. I had no strength even to cry."

A friend, who wished to be known only as J, said he was coughing up blood and passing in and out of consciousness as extreme hunger and weakness reduced passengers to eating their own vomit.

"People were praying in their own languages, their only hope that they would survive, but everyone was ready to die," he said.

Nobody died on that particular voyage, but others on equally perilous journeys were not so fortunate.

Another Villawood inmate, N, is all too familiar with the fatal dangers of the journey: after 25 days at sea his ship sank in the middle of the Indian Ocean last November, killing 12 on board.

He was among the 27 who were rescued by a nearby British ship, and arrived in Australia with nothing but his underpants.

"Only one body was recovered," he said, adding that he would never undertake the voyage again. "It was a fight between life and death."

The men, who like other ethnic Tamils were fleeing Sri Lanka's bloody civil conflict, said they were driven only by desperation and had no idea of the horrors of the journey, or that they would be locked up on arrival.

These tales, and thousands like them, often go unheard by Australian voters, whose concern over the dozens of asylum boats arriving each year has returned as a major election issue.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard has sought to soothe conservative voters by promising to detain refugees abroad, with East Timor as her preferred destination.

The opposition meanwhile has promised to reinstate the "Pacific Solution" of conservative former leader John Howard, which left refugees including women and children languishing for years in foreign camps and was criticised by the UN.

Afghan refugee Chaman Shah Nasiri is a veteran of the "Pacific Solution", which kept hundreds of his fellow countrymen and women, and children, detained on remote, barren Nauru and Papua New Guinea's Manus Island.

The ethnic Hazara fled war-torn Afghanistan in 2001, the same year that Howard won elections promising to crack down on people-smuggling after the SIEV-X disaster, when an overloaded boat capsized drowning 353 refugees.

"It was horrible," he told the news agency of his three years in the Nauru camp, after a perilous sea journey from Indonesia with 222 other Hazaras.

"Even if you give me a million dollars I wouldn't do it (again) because I know how hard it is."

Chaman said the detainees were kept in complete isolation behind razor wire, without access to the outside world. Without legal or humanitarian assistance, his pleas for a refugee visa were rejected three times before he became so desperate he resorted to hunger strikes.

"When you are outside Australia anything could happen... You are out of sight, no one would want to find out what would happen," he explained.

"Sitting inside those camps, in limbo where there is no hope, you can't go back, you can't go forward. It tortures you mentally every single day."

"At the end of the day you came to save your family (by sending remittances or bringing them over to join you), but you want to kill yourself," Chaman adds. "It's something not many people would understand."

Sri Lankan Gowri Gowreeswaran, 29, spent months trying to register as a refugee in Malaysia, often shadowed by immigration police, before he paid 1.8 million rupees -- about 16,000 US dollars -- for passage on a crowded boat.

There were 193 people inside the 70-foot craft, and they were told it would take just 18 hours to get to Australia. The voyage lasted 18 nauseating days, in a boat which first lost engine power and then sprung a leak.

"We had no idea whatsoever that Australia had these kinds of systems when we embarked on the boat," he said of his six months locked up on Christmas Island, 2,600 kilometres (1,600 miles) off Australia's west coast.

"We didn't come as thieves or criminals, the only reason is to save our lives."
Behind the fences of Villawood, Punniyamoorthy and his friends long for just one thing: freedom. They have mixed feelings about whether, in hindsight, their ordeal was worth the risk.

"Without a real chance of death I wouldn't recommend anyone to undertake this," said N, a shadow crossing his face as he remembers his fateful ocean voyage. "It's too much."