Indian authorities have sent out alerts to all countries in South East Asia as well as beyond to watch out for a boat that is suspected to have left Kerala shores more than a month ago with scores of people on board seeking to make their way to New Zealand. While the exact location of the boat is not yet known, officials have started preparing a tentative list of the people on it.
An official said that instead of 200-plus people suspected to be in the boat initially, they now believe the number may be around 100. “While a key suspect in police custody said there were over 200 people onboard, further investigation among the 19 people who failed to board the boat on December 12 from Kochi’s Munambam harbour confirms that the number of passengers were about 100, including women and children… We have shared the identification number of the boat and the name with other countries as they need to be prepared for a rescue mission.”
Inspector General of Police, Kochi range, Vijay Sakhare, said their investigations also indicate around 100 were on board. “This is based on multiple evidences, including data collected from hotels where they stayed ahead of their journey. Over 80 per cent of them were from Delhi and a few from parts of Tamil Nadu. Most of them were Indians of Sri Lankan origin.”
Sakhare said people who were deboarded as the boat reportedly got overcrowded had told them that the passengers left prepared for a 30-40-day trip. “Organisers of the boat purchased food, vegetables, water and other essentials. Since everyone knew it was a long voyage, passengers took along items such as medicines.”
Claiming that the eventual destination of the boat could not be revealed for “strategic reasons”, an official said, “Countries along their suspected route have been alerted by the Ministry of External Affairs.”
He added that while the countries where they may land are likely to send them back, India was under no obligation to accept them. This, he said, was a matter of some tension with other countries. “The other countries feel we are not doing enough to prevent such incidents. Yet again, there are demands for us to sign the United Nations human trafficking treaty as it allows them to deport someone immediately if they are caught for illegal entry.”
Sri Lankan Tamils are known to have taken similar routes to other countries before. Speaking to The Indian Express, Ratna Kanthan, a coordinator for the International Tamil Refugee Advocacy Network based in Melbourne, appealed to Indians of Sri Lankan origin to avoid such dangerous routes for migration. “But it is their misery and hope for a better life that forces them,” Kanthan said.
Rebecca Lim of Manus island in Papua New Guinea, a migration agent who specialises in Sri Lankan refugees, added that 50 per cent of such boats carrying refugees disappear mid-seas. Currently coordinating for about 600 refugees from India, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and Iraq, Lim said the Indian boat would be sent back if caught by the Australian navy. “If they manage to land on the mainland, they will be taken into custody. If they fail to claim protection as refugees, they will be deported.”