Earlier this year in January, Prabhu Dandwani missed a bus and a boat that was to ferry him to the land of his dreams.
The buses arranged by the ‘agents’ were to transport him and 250 odd undocumented migrants from a resort on Cherai Beach near Kochi to Munambam Harbour.
‘Deva Matha’, a fishing trawler at that, waited at the dock. In a few hours, it would set sail for New Zealand.
By some strange quirk of fate, while Prabhu and his friends were waiting to board a bus to the quay, Deva Matha was packed to the deck. Men, women and children; 241 by count - a motely group. Excited faces, anxious demeanors, poignant gazes setting sail for 11,000 kilometre journey on high seas.
That was the last time Prabhu heard from or saw of those on board. Nor has anyone else in the last six months.
As the Deva Matha de-anchored and chugged away from the Malabar Coast, Prabhu thought of his own journey to Australia on a similar vessel.
That was more than six years ago, way back in 2013. Intercepted and deported back to Delhi, in all these years, little else occupied his mind. Especially the 18 months he and his family spent as asylum-seekers in Christmas Islands and Darwin."We thought we would die."
Back in Delhi and barely making ends meet, Prabhu decided to give it another shot. New Zealand was to be his second coming down under.
Money had been paid to the agents in advance. Everything went according to the drill.
But for a missed bus, Prabhu and his friends would have been on board Deva Matha.
Sitting in the small living room of his mother’s house in Ambedkar Nagar, Prabhu recalled the time when he, his wife Anandi and their daughter, along with 69 others, journeyed on a boat from Munambam harbour to Christmas Islands, located 1,550 km north-west off the Australian mainland.
It was May 2013, and Prabhu along with Arun and 20 others from the colony -- touted as the ‘Madrasi colony’-- reached Ernakulum after an agent named Manirathnam told them of a boat leaving for Australia. Each of them had paid Rs 3 lakh to the smugglers.
They were put up in a lodge close to Ernakulum station before being moved to Kondangullur, mere 10 km from Munambam port.
Prabhu and his friend Arun recall being taken to the harbour in an Innova car. The boat they boarded was not unlike the blue fishing boat the 243 had departed in earlier this year.
“Except it was much smaller,” said Arun.
The journey of 4,000 kilometres across the Indian Ocean is typically a perilous one, riddled with tempestuous weather and rough winds. Prabhu remembered being under a tarpaulin of sorts. The only way to escape the winds and the rain was to press against the floorboard with his daughter on top of him.
“It was raining for 10 days straight, we couldn’t eat anything. We thought we would die,” Prabhu said.
No official records are kept by government agencies about the number of asylum-seekers who die at sea while trying to reach Australia’s shores. According to Monash University's Australian Border Deaths Database, between 2000 and 2018, 1,720 people died en route Australia (the toll includes deaths that occurred both within and outside Australia’s borders). Reports suggest that in 2013 alone, around 100 people died while trying to reach Christmas islands.
Prabhu and Arun’s boat took 17 days to make that journey. On May 31, as they were approaching Christmas Islands, their boat was intercepted by the Australian Border Force.
“We were put on another boat and then taken to a camp,” Prabhu said. His only belonging was the lungi draped around his legs.
Christmas Island Immigration Reception and Processing Centre or commonly called the Christmas Island Immigration detention centre, first established in 2001, has been at the heart of several controversies.
Over the years, successive Australian governments, led by both Centre-Left Labour and conservative Liberal parties, have come under fire over policy regarding asylum-seekers and the treatment meted out to detainees.
The Regional Resettlement Arrangement policy enacted under the Kevin Rudd administration in July 2013 in collaboration with Papua New Guinea (PNG) has been one such points of contention. As per the ‘PNG Solution’, any asylum-seeker who comes to Australia via boat without a visa will be refused settlement and settled in Papua New Guinea instead.