ON January 11, the Kerala Police took custody of over 50 abandoned bags near the Kodungallur temple in Thrissur district. They kept it at a control outpost, assuming they belonged to Ayyappa devotees. But the next day, when police stumbled upon many more bags at the Munambam harbour near Kochi, the mystery deepened. They now fear that the bags — with clothes, ID proofs and other documents — belonged to 230 people, who allegedly set sail from the Kerala coast to New Zealand in a boat so packed that many of them had to leave their luggage behind.
Police sources confirmed that while the boat left from Munambam harbour in the early hours of January 12, the fate of the passengers on board, among them over a hundred women, children and the elderly — mostly from Delhi and Tamil Nadu — remains uncertain.
On Saturday, the Kerala Police arrested Prabhu, a 29-year-old Tamil youth who lives in Dr Ambedkar Nagar Colony in South Delhi, for his alleged connection with the kingpins of the illegal migration racket — Srikanth, the owner of the boat, Ravindra and Shantha Kumar. While all three remain at large, Prabhu, who was brought to Kochi, is being interrogated by a team of officers, said a top police officer investigating the case.
Investigators say that their preliminary probe suggests that the boat, Deva Matha, was packed to capacity, with people on board as well as in the hull and middle deck. However, around 19 people failed to board the boat on January 12. “We are investigating some of them,” said a senior officer associated with the probe.
Multiple sources said Prabhu, who is in police custody, was among the 19 who failed to make the trip. The officer, however, said, “We couldn’t ascertain his claim. We are still looking at the probability of him being part of the network of traffickers.” A Kerala Police team is camping in Delhi to investigate the case.
Among those who allegedly joined the trip are the sons of Saraswathi and Sundaralingam. While the couple lives in Ambedkar Nagar colony in Delhi, their sons have grown up in Tamil Nadu. Sources close to the couple said that Sundaralingam, who was aware of his sons making the trip, had had second thoughts and had rushed to Kerala to persuade them to abandon the plan, but had failed to do so.
Based on the police’s preliminary investigation, it turns out that all the people who were to board that boat reached Kochi after January 4. “The ones from Delhi flew down to Chennai and from there, they took the rail or road route to reach Kochi,” said a senior officer associated with the probe. He added that all of them stayed in different places in Kerala, including Guruvayur, Cherayi, Munambam and Chottanikkara.
However, neither police nor coastal intelligence agencies or the local people had any clue about the plan. “The first tip-off was about the several bags that had been abandoned at Munambam. Soon, we had reports of a similar case from Kodungallur,” he said.
Police sources say their inquiries in the state and Delhi have revealed that most of the passengers paid between Rs 1.2 lakh and Rs 3 lakh to the agents.
“We have also found out that some of those who left on January 12 have relatives who have taken this same illegal route to Australia before,” said another police official.
Police say their initial inquiries reveal that the destination of the boat was not Australia but New Zealand since the country was considered more welcoming to refugees than Australia. While being investigated, Prabhu had reportedly quoted media reports about New Zealand increasing the annual refugee quota from 1,000 to 1,500 in July 2020.