Two separate groups of Sri Lankans have been arrested in India in recent days trying to board boats to Australia, having been told a change of government would lead to a change of refugee policy.
According to respected Australian refugee advocate Mr. SC Chandrahasan, people-smugglers have been active in Sri Lankan refugee camps in India, spreading the claim. On Saturday authorities arrested several Sri Lankan Tamils, who had been living in camps in India. They were arrested at Muttom, a small fishing port on the southern tip of India. They had boarded a boat, which had come from Kerala and been repainted with false registration markings. It set sail into the Indian Ocean, but turned back when crew spotted a coast guard vessel. The would-be asylum-seekers were arrested in the harbour.
A second group of Sri Lankans was also arrested in Tamil Nadu. They arrived on tourist visas under the guise of a pilgrimage. It is believed about 16 people were detained. Authorities believe others might have escaped.
“The aim of this team is to go to Australia,” local media reported a police spokesman saying. “Someone back in Sri Lanka promised to help them and sent them to India claiming that Sri Lankan waters are well guarded. They were told that the voyage will be arranged from Indian waters.
“The Sri Lankans who arrived in Tamil Nadu on tourist visas were tricked into believing that they could go to Australia.”
The Australian understands that Indian police also arrested several people as people-smuggling suspects. Two agents were arrested in refugee camps, and another man, a skilled boat builder and diesel mechanic, was arrested near Chennai.
“It is very clear it is connected to the (Australian) elections,” Mr Chandrahasan said of recent attempts by Sri Lankans to reach Australia. Another boatload of Tamils was recently apprehended on Aceh, Indonesia.
“Our discussions with relatives of these asylum-seekers clearly indicate that they have made these efforts on the understanding that there is going to be a change in the attitude of the Australian government because the elections are about to take place,” Mr Chandrahasan told The Australian.
“If there is a change of government (they have been told) the situation that prevailed during the Kevin Rudd period where he opened up … the pending cases of people in detention will be absorbed into Australia.”
The smugglers had used similar arguments when Malcolm Turnbull replaced Tony Abbott as prime minister last year, he said.
The Australian understands Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade officials met the Indian police and coast guard this week to discuss the situation, Australian media reports.