The sharp rise in the number of asylum seekers from Sri Lanka attempting to reach Australia is due to poor living conditions, lack of job opportunities and a yearning to be reunited with family members, according to Sarah Hudson (psychologist with the Australian Red Cross).
Hudson, who has been working with the refugees on Christmas Island in Australia for the last two years, explained that many of the asylum seekers who arrived by boat had chosen to risk their lives on the journey for a range of reasons. “They are desperate, they feel they have no future back in Sri Lanka and so they have looked to alternatives,” she said.
She went on to explain that many of the boat people had told the Australian authorities that the deteriorating standard of living that they are forced to endure back in Sri Lanka had forced them to seek a new home. “One group that I counselled a month ago told me that their houses were destroyed in the fighting. When they returned from the IDP camps they found their land barren and could not be worked on. After a year of struggling they sold what they could and fled the country. They said that the local authorities had not assisted them during that period, and so they gave up,” Hudson said.
|Children are often sent off on their own by their parents in hope that they will find a better life. (Courtesy Sydney Morning Herald) and Dropped off on Australian shores, the asylum seekers face an uncertain future. (Courtesy Sydney Morning Herald)
She added that they were unaware of the situation in Australia, “They believe that there are jobs waiting for them over here. The sad fact of the matter is that many of them will be forced to remain in detention centres for close to a year. Even when they get out not many places will want to hire an asylum seeker. The future for these people is bleak.”
According to Hudson the boat people are terrified and do not know what is going to happen to them. “For the majority of the Sri Lankans I have counselled in the detention centre, they do not know what their future holds. They chose to come on this journey for numerous reasons, but many of them could not explain what their plans were upon arrival,” she said.
Of the total number of Sri Lankans who have made it across to Christmas Island, a small minority are children who have been sent on their own. “I have counselled several different children, all of whom were supposedly put on the boats by their parents. They have told me that their parents could not raise the money for all of them,” she said.
Hudson went on to say that these children have no family in Australia; often they hope that the Australian authorities will put them into foster care. “I can only imagine that the situation for those parents must be appalling for them to give up their children in that way. I have never been to Sri Lanka and am not interested in getting involved in politics, but clearly something must be done to help these people,” she said.
“In some cases, although they are not common, people have attempted to come across simply to join with their families. We have had about 15 such cases in the last three months. However, I do not believe that a family reunion would force them to risk their lives in this way,” Hudson explained.
Hudson said that when they arrive, many of them are sick and even injured. “The journey takes a lot out of them. They are sick from sea travel, while the dilapidated state of the vessels they arrive on often results in them being injured.”
“The asylum seekers are often mentally drained and require counselling before they can begin to rebuild their lives. It often takes a few weeks before they are communicative, even then they are hesitant to communicate,” she said.
Hudson denied that many of the asylum seekers had fled Sri Lanka in fear of their lives. “The majority have expressed disappointment that even though the war is over their lives have not improved. They said they were happy when the fighting ended, but three years on they are struggling to rebuild their lives.”
While the Australian authorities are struggling to understand the sudden increase in the number of asylum seekers, in Sri Lanka the government seems reliant only on the police and navy to stop them. While the navy and police are struggling to contain the rise in human smuggling, there does not appear to be any separate government department looking into the causes behind it.
While the main reason behind the asylum seekers fleeing to Australia is economic hardship, the government earnestly believes that stopping the boats will solve the issue.