On January 12th, 2019, a 90 feet-long fishing trawler-turned-sailboat left Maliankara near Munambam with 248 passengers, poor Tamil migrants hoping to make it to Australia in search of a better life. Since then, neither the boat nor its passengers have been heard from again.
Only theories are left after four years.
SOME INDISPUTABLE FACTS
Residents near a boat dock in Malankara woke to loud Tamil arguments around 5 am Saturday, January 12th, 2019. This is a small backwater town located approximately 4 km inland of Munambam, near Kochi. After dawn had broken, locals began to come out and investigate the noise. The locals found a few packed bags inside the compound and immediately reported them to the police. The police were also clueless at first. The police found dry fruits, clothes, dates, and drinking water in the bags. Police also found two airline tickets from Delhi to Kochi. This heightened the alert of investigators. The state and central intelligence agencies were also alerted by then, who concluded it was a major human trafficking incident.
Police acted quickly by finding the passengers whose names were on the boarding pass. The police checked the flight manifest, located their contact numbers, and retrieved call data records. The two men were located in Madangir Colony, within the Ambedkar Nagar Police Station limits of New Delhi.
Police honed in on Srikanthan and Prabhu as the suspected masterminds of the trip. Srikanthan had visited several locations in the country, including Thiruvananthapuram, where he stayed at a rented home. The police recovered valuable documents from the house in Thiruvananthapuram. These included representations made to the UK government to request asylum. However, this was denied due to his strong ties to LTTE. He chose Australia as his destination and contacted Prabhu, who had successfully traveled to Australia by boat but had been deported there afterward.
The Sri Lankan Tamil Refugees were housed at the Madangir Colony, New Delhi. This colony was created in the 1980s as a result of the India-Sri Lanka agreement. The refugees lived in squalor. Delhi police were constantly troubled by the many crimes they committed. They then began to recruit more people, not just from the colony but from other colonies in Chennai and Coimbatore. They lured them with promises of a prosperous future in Australia”, revealed one of the officers in the team of investigators that went to Delhi to capture Prabhu.
Police were able to identify 16 people who had been involved in the organization of the trip, 10 of whom were arrested. Six people were not traced but are believed to have been part of the group that sailed. The actual number of people who planned to travel on the fishing trawler that was converted into a sailboat was much higher. Many were left behind in the end. Some of them even wanted to tell the truth to the police.
The police said that the team chose the date and the location of the trip very carefully. Police sources said that the team chose the month of January for the trip, which usually witnesses pilgrims from Tamil Nadu in the state in large groups, as it is the Mandalam-Makaravilakku festival season in Sabarimala. The team traveled from Delhi and Chennai to Kochi and stayed at the temple grounds of Chottanikkara and in some homestays located in Cherai. “Historically, Sri Lankan Tamils have had strong ties with Tamil Nadu and would have relied on the coast of Tamil Nadu for such activities. The climate changed following the assassination of former PM Rajiv Gandhi. A Hemachandran, former DGP of the state and former chief intelligence officer for Tamil Nadu, said that agencies’ surveillance had increased along the Tamil Nadu coast. This could be why they began to rely on the Kerala coast. Intelligence agencies were aware of similar attempts made in 2013 and foiled those.
The boat-building expertise of Cherai is another reason to choose the Kerala coast. Only on the west coast are steel-hulled boats manufactured. These boats are solid and safe to sail. According to some sources, the West coast is a smoother route for international ships because the presence of surveillance agencies on the east coast is more significant due to the tri-service command by the armed forces at Port Blair. Several embarking ports are often overlooked because they are located along the backwaters. This is the case with Maliankara,” Rahul Nair said.
The police are informed of any new orders for boat manufacturing from other states, so the team decided to buy an existing boat. The team should have considered money when purchasing the necessary paraphernalia. The adult fee was Rs 3 lakh, and the cost per child was Rs 1 lakh. Five lakh rupees per child. Nearly 100 of the 248 were children and even newborns.
The culprits targeted Daya Matha, an ailing boat damaged by the Ockhi Cyclone 2017. They paid Rs. The ship would have cost at least Rs 2 crores. The 90-foot-long boat was then customized. Modifications included compartments for passengers to rest in, toilets, and a water tank. Another tank was used for diesel. The police found Srikanthan, Prabhu, and their boat after inspecting the fuel station at the boatyard. They had filled the ship with 14,000 liters of diesel. The police said that another 500 liters of diesel were in the boat. They also claimed to have been in a hurry and should have bothered to pay the remaining Rs 57,000 at the fuel station.
FALLING OFF THE MAP
Sri Lankan sailors with experience were brought in for the trip. They did not use GPS for fear that security agencies would track their movements. Sources claim that they only carried a SONAR, which is not trackable. The Centre was alerted to the incident because it had international implications and exposed vulnerabilities in the security systems. The case is still under the jurisdiction of the local police, but the National Security Advisor summoned the head of the investigation team to discuss it. The Centre was closely following the daily developments of the case. The police know what happened up until the migrants set sail but are clueless as to what happened afterward. The police confirmed that, despite their plan to arrive in New Zealand or Australia within 23 to 25 days of setting sail, the migrants never made it.
It is possible that the boat sank in rough waters or was captured by Sri Lankan officials, which would have resulted in death for those aboard. In all likelihood, the ship would have sunk in rough seas or been captured by Sri Lankan authorities, which could also have resulted in death for those on board. Interpol sent Blue Corner notices to Australia and New Zealand for all 248 passengers. However, positive information still needs to be received. The authorities of these countries also informed us that the boat never reached their shores,” said police sources.