Today I’m talking with a friend of mine Nigethan, but I call him Nige.
I am a Refugee. I came by Boat. This is My Story by Lisa Hunt-Wotton
Nige is a refugee from Sri Lanka. Nige is Tamil. Nige may never see his wife and son again. This is Nigethans story.
A Refugee is a person who has been forced to leave their country in order to escape war, persecution, or natural disaster.
Civil War in Sri Lanka
The bloody Sri Lankan Civil War was fought between the majority Sinhalese and the minority Tamils. The roots of the modern conflict lie in the British colonial rule when the country was known as Ceylon. After 26 years of conflict the war finished in May 2009. The conflict ended in mass confusion and terror. More than 100,000 people were dead, hundreds of thousands had been displaced, large parts of the country — mostly in the Tamil north — were devastated (Ref).
When I tell Nigethans story many people ask me:
“Why, when the bloody civil war between the Sinhalese and the Tamils is over, are people continuing to come to Australia by boat?
Even when the war had officially ended, the terror on the Tamil civilian population continued as the Sinhalese Army engaged in what many are calling a genocide of the Tamil people causing the United Nations to call for an investigation into ethnic cleansing and war crimes. The Sri Lankan government forces have also been accused of human rights abuses (Ref).
“Human Rights Watch has documented 75 cases of torture in security force custody since the end of the war, including the rape of men and women. A report from earlier this year outlines horrific torture and sexual violence in Sri Lankan custody suffered by 40 Sri Lankans who fled to the UK” (Ref).
“An earlier UN report found that up to 40,000 civilians, almost all Tamils, may have been killed in a final army offensive ordered by Rajapaksa in the last months of the civil war, though the government disputes that figure” (Ref).
Fleeing the Horror
Nige was born into a fishing village on the North coast of Sri Lanka called Trincomalee. His father was a fisherman and sailor as was Nigethan. He grew up swimming in the ocean and learning how to fish and sail.
Nigethan and his wife, a school teacher, were living in a small rural village in the North of Sri Lanka. In 2006 Nigethans wife gave birth to a little boy. Fearing for their baby and surrounded by fighting they ran for their lives. Nige tucked the one week old baby boy into his jacket. Taking only bottles, milk and baby clothes they fled by bike to the City of Batticaloa on the coast of Sri Lanka.
Those living in these rural areas faced serious threats to their life and personal security as rebel forces were forced out of long-held territory and into civilian areas. Those threats included abduction, torture, rape, enforced disappearance and death.
Russian Roulette with the Sinhalese Army
This is Nigethans’ account of what would happen in the village on a regular basis.
“The Sinhalese Army would come to village very early in the morning about 6 am. Soldiers would surround the village and army trucks would roar into the middle of the village honking very loudly on horns terrorising the women and children. The soldiers would round-up everybody in the village and move them to the school ground. My wife was a teacher in the village school”.
“When they got to the school ground they would then divide the people up into groups of men, women, children and the old”.
“First they would say to the young men like me, you walk along that road by the trucks. There were lots of armoured vehicles on the road; ‘we are walking along the road and they are beeping the horns very loudly’. Then two soldiers come and put handcuffs on people and put covers over their heads and throw them onto the trucks and take them away”.
“This happened every week, sometimes twice a week. Each time they would take between 10- 20 people. The parents would ask police what has happened to our people and they would say, you have to ask the army. The army would say ‘no we didn’t do this you, have to ask the navy’. The navy would tell you to ask the police”.
“Many of the villagers we never saw again. Some were killed, some are still missing, some were tortured. I am very lucky that they didn’t get me. This went on for many months”.
“My wife was very scared, she told me “you don’t want to stay here because they will get you next”.
“The fighting stopped in Sri Lanka five years ago but torture and rape by the security forces hasn’t…..Men and women – describe being handcuffed and blindfolded, thrown into darkened cells where they were repeatedly subjected to torture, including branding with hot metal objects and multiple rapes”(Ref).
Life in the City of Batticaloa
“After we left the village, my wife, my son and my wife’s family were all staying in one house in the city of Batticaloa. One day a group of about 10 Army soldiers came to my house and surrounded the house. Two of the soldiers came into my house and were shouting at me, “Why don’t you go back to your village, the war is over and your village is clear?” I told them. “I can’t go back at the moment, my wife has a job here teaching in the school, I am a construction worker and my child is too small”.
“The next time they came back they put a gun into my mouth”.
“They forced me to come into the Army compound each day and sign a piece of paper”.
“The army camp is a most dangerous place. In the army camp they can do whatever they want to you. It is very scary”.
Nige tells me that he has told his story to ASIO, that he has registered a complaint with the Human Rights Commission and that he has two eye witnesses to corroborate his testimony.
“My wife and I decided that I have to leave Sri Lanka because the threats would not stop and my life was in danger”.
Nigethan approaches people smugglers to ask if they can get him to Australia. They say that yes, yes they can get him to Australia, for $15’000.00 AUS dollars. An incomprehensible amount of money for a small Sri Lankan family.
Nige travels to Colombo by train where he then catches a plane to Singapore. Fleeing imminent death and imprisonment, he unknowingly heads into a journey of near death and incredible terror.
It is a violation of Sri Lanka’s migration law to leave the country, except through official ports. If you are caught, you are likely to be arrested and charged with illegal migration – or the more serious offence of people smuggling (Ref). As a Tamil, Nigethan knows that he will never be able to return as he will be immediately captured at the airport, imprisoned and possibly executed.
2 Months in a Leaky Boat
Once in Singapore he then drives to Malaysia for the first failed attempt of sailing to Australia. He departs from Malaysia in 2009 with 28 other Sri Lankan Tamil refugees, all of them young men, boys and one old man. Some of whom are very sick.
The weather is appalling with high seas. Not long into the journey the boat breaks down and even Nige with all of his sailing experience cannot steer the boat. They float aimlessly for 20 days. Finally currents sweep the boat and its occupants into Indonesia where they wait a week before they can find another boat.
In Indonesia they pair up with refugees from another boat that had faced a similar fate and had also been stranded. All 78 people squeeze shoulder to shoulder onto the deck of a very old and very small battered boat and attempted to sail from Indonesia to Christmas Island. Among the refugees were a 4 year old child and one woman.
“There was not enough food or water. We were in the boat for 25 days. The boat started to break apart and began to leak. We ran out of water and had to cook food with sea water. We had one week of food to last for 25 days. When the water ran out we had to go one week with no drinking water at all. The woman and the child and many of the boys were very sick”.
“In the last weeks we were taking on sea water and the boat was sinking. We needed to do something because the pump was failing. We divided ourselves into 7 groups to bail out the water to keep us from drowning. 10 people bailed water together for one hour and then the next group would take over. This went on around the clock on an hourly basis for a week. At the same time storms were raging continuously and I have never been so frightened in my life. Each hour I thought that I was going to die. We had bad weather the entire time we were at sea, high seas, strong winds and terrifying storms”.
“We eventually made it to Christmas Island. I was in detention on Christmas Island for one year. I was then moved to mainland Australia where I have been moved around from Sydney, to Adelaide and finally to Melbourne”.
“I was in detention for 6 years and 1 month. I have never been to jail I am just a sailor but being in detention is like being in jail. My passport is Sri Lankan, I have a Sri Lankan drivers license. My Australian papers state that I am an “indefinite resident”. I am not allowed to become an Australian resident. My family is not allowed to come to Australia and if I return to Sri Lanka I will be jailed or worse”.
I am Indefinite
“War is never one-sided and ‘the tactics employed by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam against the actions of Government forces resulted in their listing as a terrorist organisation in 32 countries”(Ref).
“Because I am Tamil and because I come from a rural village the Australian government has listed me as a terrorist. I am not a terrorist, I am a civilian, I am a sailor. Seventy three Sri Lankans who came by boat at the same time as me, were settled and given permanent residency in Australia within 3 – 12 months of our arrival at Christmas Island”.
“I cried today when I spoke to my son on the phone who is now 10 years old. He wants his father. I want my son. I want my wife. It is very hard. My son has my name painted on his back in henna because it’s the closest that he can get to me”.
Historically, 90% of Sri Lankan asylum seekers arriving by boat in Australia have been found to be genuine refugees.
Two of Nigethans’ brothers also left Sri Lanka as refugees. One spent 100 days in a boat and eventually made it to Canada where he is now a chef and a Canadian citizen. His brother is pictured here on the far right.
The other brother made it to Australia with his wife and daughter and now live in Dandenong. They also came by boat. During the war both of these brothers left Sri Lanka to go and live in India. Neither were branded terrorist because they were not associated with the rural northern towns of Sri Lanka where the war had taken such a brutal hold. Nige and his wife could not leave at the time because she was pregnant with their son.
Making a New Life in Melbourne
In December 2015 Nigethan was released from the Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation, a detention centre in Broadmeadows into the care of Warrandyte Cafe Now and Not Yet. Now and Not Yet has provided support, housing and employment. The cafe has a committment to help people get longevity for long-term housing and employment. The cafe financially provides accommodation and training but more than that provides a support system, a community and friendship.
Negathan also volunteers two nights a week at Tamil Feasts which is a social enterprise supporting recently settled asylum seekers through the celebration of food and culture. Serving up traditional Sri Lankan fare prepared by Tamil men currently seeking asylum in Australia, these thrice-weekly feasts create a context in which the cooks are able to share the food heritage of their Sri Lankan homeland with the wider community.
Nigethan speaks to his family on Skype and on his phone. He is desperate to reunited with his family and his Warrandyte family will continue to advocate for this on his behalf.
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