Sri Lankan migrants are heading for Australia in the belief they will be welcomed now that Anthony Albanese‘s Labor government has taken power.
Since the May 21 election, three boats carrying migrants have landed on Australian territory following a two-year period without any attempted illegal arrivals.
Migrants on the third boat, who were flown back to Sri Lanka on Saturday under Operation Sovereign Borders, have revealed people smugglers convinced them to make the trip due to the change of government.
Nadesalingam and Priya Murugappan fled Sri Lanka after the country’s civil war, arriving separately on people-smuggling vessels in 2012 and 2013. The couple met in Australia, married in 2014 and were both granted temporary visas settling in Biloela, where they had two daughters, Kopika, six and Tharunicaa, four (pictured with Anthony Albanese)
One woman, Meenu Mekala, told The Australian: ‘We were told that there is a new refugee-friendly government elected and we would not be sent back.
She revealed she spent $2,000 for the illegal trip, adding: ‘It was such a hard journey we made… I would not have taken it had I known that we would be sent back like this.’
Sri Lanka is in the grips of an economic crisis with food and fuel shortages pushing some residents who can afford it to seek a new life overseas.
Labor has declared it will continue sending back anyone who arrives illegally by boat under the military operation set up under former PM Tony Abbott.
Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil – who is yet to comment on the boat arrivals – is in Sri Lanka this week for high level talks with the government which has called for Australian aid including fertilizer, food and medicine.
Shadow Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews has told Daily Mail Australia that more illegal immigrants are making the treacherous sea voyage now that Labor is in power.
Sri Lanka is in the grips of an economic crisis with food and fuel shortages pushing some residents who can afford it to seek a new life overseas. Pictured: The capital, Colombo
Karen Andrews said more illegal immigrants are making the treacherous sea voyage in the belief the new Labor government will be softer and more welcoming than the Coalition
During the election campaign, the ALP vowed to remove temporary protection visas to give migrants who arrived by boat permanent protection.
Then, in one of its first moves upon taking power, it allowed a Sri Lankan family who have been fighting deportation for years to return to the Queensland town of Biloela where they settled while their legal battle continues.
Ms Andrews said since Labor came to power people smugglers have been given ‘encouragement’ to sell journeys from Sri Lanka to Australia.
‘The Coalition consistently said people smugglers were watching, particularly during the election,’ she told Daily Mail Australia.
‘People smugglers now have enough encouragement to continue selling false dreams to trick people into buying an illegal voyage.’
Ms Andrews – who served as Home Affairs Minister in the Morrison government – said Labor’s gentler approach would cause even more human misery.
‘What this means is a greater likelihood of deaths at sea, our detention centres being filled with illegal arrivals, and greater cost to the taxpayer,’ she said.
‘The number of boats we’ve seen so far is a clear demonstration that the Labor Government doesn’t have a solution to their unwinding of Operation Sovereign Borders.’
Ahead of the election Ms Andrews said Labor’s plan to scrap temporary protection visas would undo a key pillar of Operation Sovereign Borders which was implemented to stop the boats in 2013.
Several boats including this one have been stopped by the Sri Lankan navy while departing the country
Protesters shout slogans during an anti government protest rally in Colombo, Sri Lanka on Thursday. The country is in economic crisis which may prompt more outward migration
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has insisted that he will continue to turn back boats in line with the policy.
In addition to the three boats arriving in Australia, several boats have been stopped by the Sri Lankan navy while departing the country.
An Australian Border Force spokesman said: ‘The Department does not comment on operational matters.’
Experts say more people will try to leave Sri Lanka as it suffers its worst economic crisis since 1948.
Abul Rizvi, a former deputy secretary of Australia’s Department of Immigration, believed it was ‘reasonable to suspect’ that economic hardship in Sri Lanka and curiosity about the new government’s stance were the reasons for boat arrivals.
The third boat to arrive was intercepted off the Australian territory of Cocos Islands in the Indian Ocean
‘The people smugglers want to test the new government and they’ve got more than enough people who are in desperate straits to want to participate,’ he told the Nine newspapers.
Sri Lanka is at risk of tipping into a full-blown humanitarian crisis as the country’s economy suffers its biggest shock in decades, the UN humanitarian office said on Friday.
The nation’s 22million people are suffering the country’s most serious financial turmoil in seven decades, with severe shortages of fuel, medicines and other essentials amid record inflation and a devaluation of its currency.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa declared a state of emergency in May, following a day of anti-government strikes and protests over the worsening crisis.
It comes amid rising oil prices and populist tax cuts by President Rajapaksa.
A woman moves a gas tank as she stands in line to buy another amid economic crisis in Colombo, Sri Lanka
What is Operation Sovereign Borders?
Operation Sovereign Borders is a military-led border security operation that was established in 2013 to deter illegal arrivals to Australian shores.
The hardline policy implemented by Tony Abbott’s Coalition government takes a ‘zero tolerance’ posture against asylum seekers travelling on people smuggling vessels.
Boats will either be turned back, set ablaze or seized with those onboard sent home or processed in offshore detention facilities.
The current Commander of Operation Sovereign Borders is Rear Admiral Justin Jones, who was appointed in February 2022.
Australia’s strict policy has received criticism from human rights groups with some opponents calling it illegal.