Boat after boat

TIM: We're off the east coast of Sri Lanka. The navy has just spotted a suspicious trawler far off shore. Now we're about to go and take a closer look. These waters are frequently used by people smugglers, ferrying their human cargo to Australia. 49 boats with 2,369 Sri Lankans have arrived in Australian waters this year. Many more never make it. The navy have been capturing almost one boat every day headed for Australia with boat people. Well, this is the hold where the boat people are kept. It is tiny - the area is a metre by 2 metres and there was 10 to 12 people crammed inside here. How they survive, I have absolutely no idea. Last month was a record for the Sri Lankan Navy - 640 boat people on 18 boats were captured on their way to Australia. In crammed, stinking hot conditions, it's a 2-week journey on treacherous seas. Most, but not all of the boat people are men, risking everything to get to Australia. Why risk your life to make the journey to Australia? You're chasing a better life in Australia?

MAN: Yeah.

TIM: The people smugglers are making millions but offer no guarantee of reaching Australia and no refunds if you don't. The navy have just captured 26 boat people. It's sad because they thought
they were heading to Australia for a better life but instead, later today, they'll be taken straight to jail. Is there any clear reason for the sudden rush of boat people leaving for Australia?

COMMODORE: I think the most logical thing, I believe probably the indicators they got from Down Under, down there, saying the rules going to be changed pretty soon so the... Whoever comes, they better come now.

TIM: Commodore Niraja Attygalle is Sri Lanka's director of Naval Special Forces and Naval Operations. Much of his role is to detect and intercept people-smuggling boats leaving Sri Lanka. Once caught, the crew and their human cargo are detained, interrogated and jailed - on average for two weeks. How do you know when the boats are leaving?

COMMODORE: Either we get it from the intelligence that we have put on the ground or it's accidentally we meet them out at sea, when we do patrol.

TIM: This small fishing village is one Sri Lanka's main hubs for human smuggling but you'd never know - life appears idyllic but the people are desperately poor. This father didn't want to give his name. He's 43, a welder, earning $200 a month. Married with a 7-year-old daughter, he's taken out loans to pay people smugglers 50% of the $6,500 fare to Australia. They'll get the rest if he makes it. The call to go could come at any time.

TRANSLATION: I don't know what will happen. I have never undertaken such a journey before by sea. Until I reach the other shore, my wife and child will not know whether I am alive.

TIM: What has the smuggler promised you?

TRANSLATION: They will provide food and medicine but anything goes wrong, we will have to jump overboard.

MAN: L-I-O-N. L-I-O-N. Lion.

TIM: He's confident he'll make it to Australia and is teaching his daughter English in the hope that one day she and his wife will be able to join him. He knows it's a dangerous gamble. What did the people smuggler tell you would happen if there was trouble with the boat at sea?

TRANSLATION: If someone dies on the way, it doesn't matter who it is, they will be thrown overboard. It will be up to the rest of us to explain to the relatives what happened.

TIM: This is not an innocent business. It's run by ruthless people, like this man. He's successfully sent more than 240 boat people to Australia. How many boats have you sent to Australia?

TRANLSATION: I have sent four boats.

TIM: What promises do you make to them?

TRANSLATION: I need to make money so I tell these there won't be any problem in the ocean. I lie to them. I also say that if there is a problem, they will get assistance from the navy. I make it up.

TIM: What do you tell them to do with their personal documents - their passports and IDs?

TRANSLATION: Before they leave, I prepare forged documents with the money I have obtained from them. Most of the time I destroy the original documents.

TIM: You only agreed to do this interview with a balaclava and at night. Why?

TRANSLATION: For my safety.

TIM: Why did you use a human smuggler? You know it's illegal.

SPENCER: Yeah. The thing is, you know, there is no other way, you know, there's no other way to reach Australia then we have to get there for help.

TIM: Every day for the past month the navy has been carrying out operations. They claim a good success rate but on an ocean this big, many boats slip through. The navy's fire power is little deterrent to desperate people determined to reach Australia. Like Spencer.

TIM: Why did you leave Sri Lanka?

SPENCER: To make money. To live a luxurious life.

TIM: How long did you expect the trip to take?

SPENCER: 13 days from Sri Lanka to Christmas Island.

TIM: How much did it cost?

SPENCER: If you calculate it to Australian dollars, it comes around $8,000.

TIM: $8,000?

SPENCER: And I have paid around $3,500, Australian dollars, in advance and balance money once I reach Christmas Island.

TIM: I understand that you even gave the title deed, to the smuggler, of your house?

SPENCER: Yes.

TIM: Two weeks ago, four hours into his journey to Christmas Island, Spencer was caught off Sri Lanka's west coast in this boat. What promises did the smuggler make?

SPENCER: They said the journey is going to be safe and nobody going to, you know, catch you.

TIM: What did you expect?

SPENCER: Ah, honestly, we expect something like, you know, it's going to be a ship and we going to get in a cabin and go to Australia! (LAUGHS)

TIM: And when you arrived and you saw just how small...?

SPENCER: Oh, God, it was so tough, you know? We came to know later there was not enough food for 51 people to travel in a small, you know, it's like a small boat - it's 35 feet long and there was not enough water and food, you know.

TIM: Were you afraid of dying at sea?

SPENCER: Yes, yes, of course. We didn't expect the journey is going to be so difficult, you know? We didn't expect that and I thought I am definitely going to kick the bucket.

TIM: This is vision of Spencer taken by the Sri Lankan Navy. We were given permission to interview him in custody. He's married with two children and sad that the wrong navy caught him.

SPENCER: It was a dream like, you know, once you reach Australian water, their navy will come and catch you or capture you and take you to detention camps.

TIM: Until three years ago the Sri Lankan Navy was involved in the vicious civil war between the majority Sinhalese and minority Tamils. It lasted more than a quarter of a century. Most of the boat people are Tamil. The war may be over, the battle isn't.

KAMAHL: Those Tamils suspected, rightly or wrongly, of hoping for a land of their own and they are being literally stamped out. And so for them, it's the worst place on earth to be.

TIM: Kamahl is Tamil. He arrived in Australia in 1953.

KAMAHL: Well, I was one of the original boat people except I did have a visa.

TIM: He believes most Tamils have good reason to flee and Australia should welcome them.

KAMAHL: Any normal human being would not risk their lives getting on a leaky boat if things were safe.

TIM: Three weeks ago this French supertanker rescued 30 people. In big seas, the engine on their fishing trawler had died. They'd paid nearly $10,000 each and were all Tamils. Some Australian politicians claim that Sri Lankan boat people are fleeing torture and persecution - Is that true?

SPENCER: It's bullshit, you know. It's not going to be like that. You know, once the Sri Lankan refugees reach Christmas island or Australia, whatever, they have to give some answer, "Why you come from your country?"

TIM: Yeah?

SPENCER: This is the easiest answer you can say for Tamils - "The government is torturing us."

TIM: Did you intend to say the government is torturing you?

SPENCER: Yes. Yeah.

TIM: In your eyes, what's the solution?

COMMANDER: Best thing is for Australia to tighten up the rules to show that you are doing something, you are deporting these people. So best thing is deport.

TIM: So you're saying that Australia should be sending these people back?

COMMANDER: Yes.

TIM: A few weeks ago Australia deported the first Tamil since the end of the Sri Lankan war. Do you think that will stop people?

SPENCER: It was like kidding, isn't it? By the time you deport 1 person, 10,000 people have reached there, you know? The thing is there are hundreds of boats that reach Christmas Island by the time you deport one person.

END