There was a report on television yesterday that yet another boatload of illegal migrants to Australia had been caught by the navy. The lawyer appearing for the illegal immigrants said that the people were uneducated fishermen who did not know the dangers of the long voyage to Australia.
I was a bit surprised by this; why, I wondered are fishermen leaving? Has the fishing industry deteriorated so much that fishermen are leaving in droves?
This particular boat had left from Wennappuwa on the Negombo coast, so I rang a friend who lives in the area to ask what he knew of this.
What he had heard was that the migrants were not really fishermen, they were from all walks of life and from all races, Sinhalese and Moors as well as Tamils. Australia has vast coastline and some areas in the North of Australia have a climate similar to Sri Lanka, so people feel at home. Given the large extent of coast, it is relatively easy for a boat to land undetected and its passengers to melt into the landscape.
Life for the migrants is generally good. The friend I spoke to had been introduced so a group of Sri Lankan illegal migrants in New York. One of them had been a waiter in the hotel and had recogised the Sri Lankan name and struck up a conversation. He in turn had introduced him to members of underground Sri Lankan society who had entertained him lavishly. That particular group were some 30 JVP'ers who had fled in 1988/1989 but were enjoying life in New York. They all did menial jobs as waiters, cleaners and the like, although some of them had been to university and one happened to be an engineer. I asked him whether he thought they had shed their Marxist ideology, he thought they had not but they were very happy with their lot and their only aim was to try and and get legal status. Unfortunately my friend was not able to help.
Australia seems to hold a similar attraction. People, even in low paid work, can enjoy a better life than at home and when tales of success trickle back more people line up to leave. According to my friend, he had heard that around 4,000 people from Chilaw alone had landed in Australia.
This may also explain a dilemma that firms face- difficulties with hiring staff at the low end of the scale. Nobody, not even someone who has only O Levels, wants to take a job that pays less than 15,000-20,000 a month, many want even more. Employers find it difficult to pay more and are mystified by this attitude, putting it down to pride. The high cost of living is probably nearer the truth and when there is the possibility of going abroad, legally or illegally, why take up a low paid job at home?