Subject: Tamils cheated by smugglers

Tamils cheated by smugglers

Paul Toohey | October 22, 2008

THE 16 Sri Lankan Tamils being held in the Dili lock-up began drifting into East Timor more than a year ago, all having paid $US5000-$US10,000 to a Malaysian-based smuggling syndicate to get to Australia.

They flew from Colombo to Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur, then on to Bali and to Kupang, in West Timor, after which they crossed into East Timor by land.

Thereafter the syndicate abandoned them. It had promised to provide the asylum-seekers with a boat from East Timor to Australia, but it never eventuated.

Most of the Sri Lankans, aged from 21 to 45, decided to continue with their mission and set to work as illegal immigrants, slaving and saving to hire a boat ride from Same, on the south coast of East Timor, to Darwin. With what remaining money they had, the Sri Lankans organised for three Indonesians and an East Timorese - also now in detention in Dili - to supply and crew a dodgy boat to take them to Australia.

On Sunday, as they set off, they foundered in heavy weather while they were still in swimming distance from shore. They were picked up by East Timorese police and taken to Dili's central cells.

Raja Retnam Kumares, an assistant superintendent working for the UN police, acted as the group's translator during interrogation in Dili yesterday.

"All have been used and cheated by a syndicate," Mr Kumares said. "They dealt with a Malaysian character who used a fictitious name but once they got to Dili his phone number did not work any more."

Mr Kumares said the last of the group came across from Kupang to Dili 10 days ago, apparently unaware that other members of the group, all men, had been left high and dry. He said the men, whom he described as fit and well, were civilians with "no connection to the Tamil Tigers".

Immigration Department chief investigator Alfredo Adel said only seven of the 16 had passports. He said they initially lied to him about their real intentions.

"They say they're only tourists, and after going to Australia they will go back to Sri Lanka," Mr Adel said. "A crazy story. They left the Same district by one boat, wanting to go to Australia. But their boat was broken, the engine was broken."

Mr Kumeras said the 12 Sri Lankans were terrified to return to Colombo, claiming they would be killed. The staggered manner of the group's arrival in East Timor raises questions as to whether the men were seeking to exploit the Rudd Government's minor changes to border protection laws. It appears at least some of the group began their journey before Labor was elected; it is also thought some would have preferred to go to Malaysia but were given tickets to Indonesia.

The International Organisation for Migration in Dili would not comment on the case, but was in close contact with the group.

East Timor's Secretary of State for Security Francisco Guterres said no decision had been made on the fate of the Sri Lankans.

"We are detaining them for investigation," Mr Guterres said. "We need a proper investigation to see how it goes. We have a lot of illegal crossings and we are now getting some of them. We are detecting a lot of people, and recently we have succeeded in arresting four Nigerians, with money and false US notes."

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