Sri Lanka’s poor unmoved by Australia’s new boat people policy

Sri Lanka’s poor unmoved by Australia’s new boat people policy
The new Prime Minister of Australia Tony Abbott introduces his ministers during the official swearing in at the Government House in Canberra September 18, 2013.

UDAPPUWA, Sri Lanka, Sept 20, 2013 - As Australia's new government launches tough measures to halt asylum seekers arriving on boats, some dirt-poor fishermen and their families half a world away in Sri Lanka seem undeterred.

Australia has struggled to manage the stream of asylum-seekers, including from Sri Lanka, arriving on rickety, overloaded fishing boats, with hundreds dying on the risky journey in recent years.

Australia's Tony Abbott said he would act swiftly to implement a central plank of his election campaign to "stop the boats", sending a strong signal to people smugglers, after being sworn in as prime minister on Wednesday. But in the remote Sri Lankan hamlet of Udappuwa, where some have already made the perilous trip and others are planning to, the dream of starting a new and potentially prosperous life in Australia remains alive.

"The message received here is that 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, told AFP. Abbott said this week he would stand by a policy to send boat people to detention centres in the poor nation of Papua New Guinea, just north of Australia, effectively taking away any chance of their ever settling in Australia.

The previous government claimed this policy had "broken the back" of the people-smuggling trade, with the number of boat arrivals to Australia halving since it was announced in July.

Local school headmaster V. Ramachandran said the new government's measures meant that, for some, their plans to risk it all at sea were on hold.

"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 this week.

"But many here want to get to Australia. They will now wait and see." Udappuwa, home to 10,500 mostly ethnic minority Tamils, relies on the seasonal fishing industry for income. Catches are dwindling and small boats sit idle for six months of the year.

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 told AFP.

"Many more are trying to make the journey," he added.

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