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Disappearance of a group of people on a fishing boat is still a mystery

A fishing boat that disappeared from Kochi about a month ago, carrying 100-odd people, is yet to be traced by agencies.

, ET Bureau|
Feb 09, 2019, 11.30 PM IST
The fishing boat is likely to have hit international waters soon.
Were there 40 of them? Or, 100? Were they headed to New Zealand? Or, Australia? Why did they leave? And where are they now? Close to a month after a motorised fishing boat chugged out of Munambam harbour, 30 km from Kochi, carrying an unverified number of people, there are still more questions than answers about it. Inspector General of Police (Kochi Range) Vijay Sakhare told ET Magazine that the police now estimate there were 100 people on board the Devamatha 2, the boat they had set out in.

“We have identified most of them,” he says. Many are second-generation Indians whose Sri Lankan Tamil parents would have come to India in the 1970s, and had been residents of Madangir, a locality in New Delhi, he says.

Initially, it was suspected to be a case of human trafficking but evidence later pointed to the passengers having gone willingly after paying Rs 1.5 lakh per person. The crew is believed to be Sri Lankan and the operation’s kingpin and prime suspect in the case is a Sri Lankan named Srikanthan.

Crucially, the boat, which left the harbour in the early hours of January 12, is yet to be located. Its mysterious departure was discovered a couple of days later when locals found several bags abandoned at the Munambam harbour, with clothes and dry fruit. Another set of bags were found a few kilometres away, setting off alarm bells.

The fishing boat is likely to have hit international waters soon. “If they went directly out to sea, they could have gone 240 miles in the first two days, which would be international waters,” says Commander Sridhar Warrier, the navy spokesperson in Kochi. Territorial waters end at 12 nautical miles, or 24 km. The operation, says Warrier, was complicated from the start because of the lack of information. “Inputs have varied from 40 to 80 to 100 passengers and from one to two boats.” The navy denies charges of any lapse on its part.


“As far as the Indian Navy and Coast Guard are concerned, this is primarily a law and order issue. We concentrate on coastal incursions into our borders, which are a threat to national security. But that’s not what has happened here,” he says. The Coast Guard and navy are continuing their search in coordination with international agencies.

On January 25, the police arrested three persons in connection with the case, including two men who were residents of Madangir, Prabhu Dandapani and Ravi Raja. “There have been no further arrests. We are investigating the multiple documents that were recovered, some of which we suspect might be forged,” says Additional Superintendent of Police MJ Sojan, one of the officers who are part of the probe. Dandapani is reported to have told the police that the boat was headed to New Zealand.

However, one of the most intriguing questions about the escapade remains: why would a group of people from New Delhi risk life and limb on a treacherous, 14,000 km voyage on a fishing boat?

Similar attempts to reach Australia by boat from India had been made by Sri Lankan Tamils looking to escape persecution once the war on the island nation ended in May 2009. “Agents targeted people fleeing from Sri Lanka as well as those wanting to leave refugee camps in Tamil Nadu. They were almost 100% Sri Lankan,” says SC Chandrahasan, Chennai-based founder of the Organisation for Eelam Refugees’ Rehabilitation (OfERR). “These refugees were very vulnerable. Unfortunately, smuggling people was not considered a serious penal offence so a lot of people took it up,” he says.

“Those who made such attempts earlier were Sri Lankan Tamil victims. The involvement of Indian nationals this time is baffling” SC Chandrahasan, founder, Organisation for Eelam Refugees’ Rehabilitation.

This peaked in 2012-13, but the number dipped drastically once Australia changed its policy and began turning boats back. “Irregular maritime arrivals” were alternatively sent to detention facilities on the islands of Nauru and Papua New Guinea. According to statistics presented in the Australian Parliament, 29 vessels carrying 740 passengers were turned back between 2013 and 2017. Yet, as recently as September 2015, nine Sri Lankan nationals and four Indian agents were arrested from Kochi after the police got information that the group was planning to illegally emigrate from Munambam by boat, the same modus operandi used in the latest case.

“Those who made such attempts were Sri Lankan Tamil victims, who would have reasons for applying for asylum. The qualitative difference now is that for the first time, there were Indian nationals, which is baffling,” says Chandrahasan.

The organisation says no one is missing from the 107 camps housing 62,000 Sri Lankan Tamil refugees across Tamil Nadu.

One possibility is that the group included those who had made such attempts earlier, unsuccessfully, and got stuck in Delhi.

"They would have been sitting ducks for agents, who would have promised them the heaven," surmises Chandrahasan. Acquaintances of those who had left told OfERR workers on the condition of anonymity that passengers were told they would be taken to New Zealand but that if they got an opportunity, they would go to Australia. It is also likely that they were lured by stories of Sri Lankan Tamils who had successfully made such voyages and received Australian citizenship, ignorant of the grounds needed for asylum.

When asked about the possibility of the boat docking in New Zealand, Stephen Vaughan, assistant general manager, Immigration New Zealand (INZ), told ET Magazine over email that INZ does not comment on specific ventures. "Under the Immigration Act 2009, those who arrive as part of a mass arrival can be detained for up to six months and this detention period may be extended for up to 28 days at a time, if a district court judge determines that is necessary."

On February 6, a boat carrying 72 Sri Lankan refugees docked at the Reunion Islands. OfERR suspects that the boat from Munambam, too, might have made a similar stop once the crew got wind that Australia had been put on alert. But a definite answer to this and all other questions remain elusive till the Devamatha 2 is found.
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