Selvan is heading out on his motorcycle to buy groceries from a nearby shop in the city of Jaffna in Sri Lanka, but the direct sunlight disturbs him, making it hard to concentrate, blurring his vision as his panic grows: he is back on a sinking ship packed with more than 300 other people, pounded by relentless waves, struggling to control his body.
Steering his motorcycle through traffic, Selvan, 47, struggles for breath, hits the brake and snaps back to reality. The momentary relapse of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is not a new experience for him.
In November 2022, he was one of 303 Sri Lankan migrants, including dozens of women and children, stranded on a sinking vessel in the waters between the Philippines and Viet Nam for 28 days before being rescued. Many others report having similar experiences.
Thanks to the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and its partners, Selvan and many others chose a safe, voluntary passage back to Sri Lanka, where they are currently benefiting from the UN agency’s ongoing efforts to address the root causes of why they risked their lives on that perilous lifechanging journey.
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The COVID-19 pandemic triggered the largest increase in inequalities between countries in three decades.
Financial crisis sparks dangerous rumours
“The economic crisis took a toll on all of our lives,” said Selvan, a former well-respected warden at a well-known national college who spent his spare time rearing animals on a farm. “Even livestock farming became difficult when there was a ban on all imports, including fertilizers. My earnings as a public sector worker were not enough to survive.”
Amid the crippling crisis, rumours flew around town of a large ship waiting offshore en route to Canada, he said.
“I am a father of four and, as the sole breadwinner of the family, the responsibility for their wellbeing rests squarely on my shoulders,” he said. “Call it desperation, but I saw this as the sole lifeline to escape these financial hardships and get a job. I needed to find a way for my kids to continue their education.”
Selvan chased the swirling townwide whispers. Tracking down an agent facilitating the journey, who demanded a hefty sum of $4,000, he staked everything on this endeavour, selling his house and his wife’s jewellery and leaving his permanent job, all in hope of a brighter future for his children.
The rumour spread. In another town about 50 km away, Ankita and her husband sold her small tailoring shop after languishing for months without customers. Using her house as collateral, she paid an agent $7,000 for them to stake a claim onboard a ship towards a better future.
“We had no choice but to believe them” – Ankita recalls dealing with smugglers
“We had no choice but to believe them,” she said, describing how the agent had arranged for travel to Myanmar, took away their passports to “process visas” and told them to wait in a small hotel room for months.
“The visa never came and neither did our passports,” she said.
Finally, the day of departure arrived. Instead of the promised “large ship”, a fragile boat awaited them which set sail overcrowded with passengers including 22 women and 14 children.
‘Everyone feared for their lives’
On the second day of the journey, seawater started seeping into the boat, so the crew members fled in an emergency raft, promising to return with a new vessel; they never did.
“When the boat crew didn’t return for days, we found ourselves stranded in the middle of nowhere,” Ankita said. “We were surviving on small packages of rations that we had brought for the journey.”
Hunger gnawed at them throughout the days at sea, but the main problem was thirst. So, they collected rainwater in rusty buckets to drink, she said.
“Everyone feared for their lives and regretted setting foot on board,” Ankita said, adding that 28 days would pass before a Japanese vessel responded to their distress signals.
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More than 108.4 million people had been forcibly displaced by the end of 2022, over 2.5 times the number reported a decade ago.
Multinational rescue mission
The rescue mission was a joint effort, including Sri Lanka’s Navy and the regional Singapore-based Maritime Rescue Coordination Centres.
Upon the migrants’ safe arrival in Vung Tao, Viet Nam, IOM deployed a protection team. Partnering with the Government and the Sri Lankan Embassy in Hanoi to provide such immediate assistance as food, medical aid and emergency shelter, the UN migration agency worked with authorities to help with the migrants’ voluntary return, said Sarat Dash, mission chief of IOM Sri Lanka and Maldives.
“We coordinated closely with Sri Lankan and Vietnamese authorities for the issuance of temporary travel documents, as the smugglers had confiscated the migrants’ passports,” he said.
The voluntary return occurred in two batches, with IOM facilitating medical check-ups and travel arrangements from Viet Nam back to Colombo, Sri Lanka, and onwards to Jaffna.
“When IOM informed us of an opportunity to go back home, I accepted it in a heartbeat,” Selvan said. “But, as the day drew near, I experienced a mix of emotions knowing the country’s precarious financial situation and the fact that I had pawned all my life-long savings and house. It was my family’s encouragement that reaffirmed my conviction to go back and start afresh.”
Rebuilding their lives
Selvan’s struggle8s were far from over. Most of the returning migrants found themselves jobless and saddled with debt.
“It wasn’t the scornful mocking from community members that bothered me; rather, it was not being able to get my job back, to which I had dedicated over 20 years,” he said, adding that he now works full-time on his farm, paying monthly instalments to clear his debts. “However, without a decent job and stable income, it leaves us with mere pennies to make ends meet.”
The UN migration agency in Sri Lanka currently provides reintegration support and works with States and local authorities to provide basic psychosocial counselling, skills training opportunities and facilitate referral support, ensuring longer-term solutions for rescued migrants.
Turning tides towards safe migration
“The economic situation in the country remains fragile and volatile,” Mr. Dash said. “As these rumours gain traction, there is an urgent need for international cooperation to expand pathways for safe, orderly and regular migration, providing practical alternatives that could more effectively dissuade potential migrants from embarking on such perilous journeys.”
While those who have returned insist they would never make the journey again, rumours of a new ship to Canada waiting offshore persist, with brokers lurking in the shadows and preying on people’s socioeconomic vulnerabilities.
Selvan has words of warning.
“Conduct thorough research, and always go through professional consulates,” he said. “My message to all aspiring migrants is never opt for irregular channels in your migration journey, and never blindly trust the rumours you hear.”
Learn more about IOM and its ongoing efforts to help migrants here.