Sri Lankans still dream of new life in Australia despite new rules to halt asylum seekers
As Australia's new government launches tough measures to halt asylum seekers arriving on boats, some dirt-poor fishermen and their families in faraway Sri Lanka seem undeterred.
In the remote hamlet of Udappuwa, from where some have already made the perilous trip and others are planning to do so, the dream of starting over in Australia is still alive.
"Even if you are held at an immigration detention centre, the food and clothing you get will be much better than what you have at home," the village's top civil servant, K. Wasagamoorthy, said.
Udappuwa school headmaster V. Ramachandran said Australia's new measures meant that, for some, their plans to risk it all at sea were on hold, but had not been cancelled.
"After the new government came to power, some (Sri Lankan asylum seekers already in Australia) called their relatives here to say they fear they may be sent back soon," he said. "But many here want to get to Australia. They will now wait and see."
With few prospects, some in the hamlet in the country's northwest have fled for a new life abroad. "About 500 people from our village have gone to Australia (illegally) in the past year or so," Ramachandran said. "Many more are trying," he added.
He speculated that about 10 have returned home after their claims for asylum in Australia were rejected. Nationwide, about 1,300 Sri Lankans have been sent back since August last year.
"The motivation to go is the lifestyle of those who made it good abroad," Ramachandran said. "They have built proper houses and bought vehicles for their parents and other family members left behind."
The Sri Lankan police say they are doing their part to halt the departures, with about 300 people nationwide, including smugglers and their passengers, arrested since July. The 300, including 56 women and 93 children, were arrested after the Sri Lankan navy detected three trawlers suspected of preparing to make the trip.
Udappuwa fisherman Muthulingam Armugasamy is one who made the journey. But his asylum claim dragged on and he was finally encouraged by the authorities to head home.
Armugasamy, 52, still hopes the journey was worth it. He is waiting for a cash handout from the International Organisation for Migration, offered as an incentive to drop his asylum claim.