Monday, April 12, 2010

Sri Lankan tells of asylum death voyage

Twelve of Pararasasingam Paheertharan's fellow travellers drowned, including brothers aged 13 and 14 employed as crew, after people-smugglers herded him and 38 other Sri Lankan Tamils on to an ill-equipped fishing boat for an ambitious journey across the Indian Ocean.

In the first interview about last November's tragedy, soon to be examined by the West Australian coroner, Paheer said the people-smugglers promised passengers they would be transferred to a bigger vessel after two or three days sailing from Negombo, on Sri Lanka's west coast.

"After 10 days travelling we realised we were deceived by them," he wrote in an email after The Australian visited him in detention on Christmas Island last week.

"After 27 days travelling, our vessel had a hole -- we tried to remove the ocean water but we couldn't control it," Paheer wrote.

He emptied two oil canisters, tied them together and hung on in big waves after the boat sank 350 nautical miles northwest of the Cocos (Keeling) Islands on November 1.

Most survivors were taken aboard the LNG Pioneer, while others were rescued by the Taiwanese fishing vessel Kuamg, which was first to respond.

The former student union activist told how he was rescued at 3am on his 32nd birthday after eight hours in the water.

All 27 survivors, including a 15-year-old boy, remain in detention on Christmas Island.

Paheer and four other survivors await a decision on their claims for asylum, while seven have received initial rejections and can ask for an independent review.

"We never forget it, every day at night we see our people, who are shouting `please help us' from the ocean," he said.

Paheer is among those asylum-seekers who typically pay up to $US10,000 ($10,700) to try to get to Australia from Indonesia or, in his case, from Sri Lanka.

One Customs officer told The Australian he was astonished that so many dilapidated asylum boats made it as far as they did.

The dangers of the journey from Negombo to Christmas Island did not bother the people-smugglers who took Paheer's money, and for Paheer it seemed worth the risk.

Paheer recalled how, as a passenger who spoke good English, it was his job to radio for help at about 1am on November 1, when it became obvious the boat was in trouble.

Nine hours later, a fishing boat appeared. "We waved towards it, it came near us, we explained our situation, then the boat captain said `we informed the Australian government, they sent a ship'," Paheer said.

"Around 6.30pm we saw a ship coming towards us -- unfortunately before the ship came near us our vessel sank.

"I saw that some of us were swimming towards the ship, others shouting here and there, in front of me I saw three people sink into the ocean."

One body was recovered. Those who died included the boat's captain and his young nephews, brought to work as crew. A rescued 19-year-old arrived at Christmas Island with the other survivors last November believing his father had been rescued by another boat.

It was a police officer's duty a few days later to tell the young man his father was not coming, and was believed drowned.

© The Australian

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