Jaffna, Sri Lanka – It is a sunny day and Selvan is heading out on his motorcycle to buy groceries from a nearby shop. The direct sunlight disturbs him, making it hard to concentrate on the road.
His vision blurs, the 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 Jaffna, heart pounding, Selvan, 47, struggles for breath, overwhelmed by the primal fear of drowning.
He hits the brake and snaps back to reality; looking around he sighs deeply before giving thanks to Kadavul (God in Tamil) for bringing him back safe. Caught in his memories, he has driven past his destination and turns back for home.
The momentary relapse of post-traumatic stress disorder is not a new experience for Selvan. 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. Many others report having similar experiences.
“I was a well-reputed warden at the College of Education. During my free time, I would work at the farm, rearing animals,” Selvan says, recalling life before the financial crisis that drove inflation, caused critical shortages of essential commodities and led to food insecurity and unemployment.
"The economic crisis took a toll on all of our lives. 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.”
“There were rumours going around town of a large ship waiting offshore, which was en route to Canada. I am a father of four, and, as the sole breadwinner of the family, the responsibility for their well-being rests squarely on my shoulders. 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 the agent facilitating the journey, who demanded a hefty sum of USD 4,000. He staked everything on this endeavour, including pawning his house and wife’s jewellery, vacated his permanent employment, all in the hope of a brighter future for his children.
In another town about 50 kilometres away, Ankita and her husband caught wind of the same rumours. She sold her small tailoring shop, which had languished without customers for months, and put her house up as collateral to pay an agent USD 7,000 for the two of them.
“The agent arranged for us to travel to Myanmar on a tourist visa and took us to a small hotel,” she recalls. “They took away our passports, saying they needed it as evidence to process our visa at the embassy and asking us not to come out of the hotel rooms. The visa never came and neither did our passports.”
Confined in the hotel room for months, the agent reassured the couple that they were in the process of gathering more passengers, and all of them would be boarding a ship to Canada in early October.
“We had no choice but to believe them.”
Finally, the day of departure arrived. One early morning, the Sri Lankan migrants were transported to their vessel on Myanmar’s shores. Instead of the large ship the agent had promised, a fragile boat awaited them.
All of them, including 22 women and 14 children, were crammed into the small boat and sailed off. On the second day of the journey, seawater started seeping into the boat. The crew members who were navigating fled in an emergency raft promising they would 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. We were surviving on small packages of rations that we had brought for the journey. Cautious as we were, we ate only one meal a day,” recounts Ankita.
“Hunger gnawed at us throughout the day, yet our main problem was thirst. We were collecting rainwater in rusty buckets to drink.”
“Someone on the boat, a former member of the Sri Lankan navy, knew how to operate the satellite telephone. He sent out distress signals in hopes of being rescued, but days passed without any response or rescue ship in sight. At this point, everyone feared for their lives and regretted setting foot on board.”
Twenty-eight days would pass before a Japanese vessel responded to the distress signal and rescued all aboard. They were handed over to a Vietnamese rescue ship who looked after them until they arrived in Vung Tao, Viet Nam.
“When we saw the ship from afar, we knew this was our only chance. With a resurgence of determination and hope, we all waved our flags so they could see us. When they started heading our way, it felt like we were revived,” Ankita adds.
The rescue mission was a joint effort of the Governments of Viet Nam and Sri Lanka, in coordination with the Sri Lanka Navy and the Sri Lanka Missions in the Philippines, Singapore and Viet Nam, as well as the regional Maritime Rescue Coordination Centres (MRCC) based in Singapore.
Upon the migrants’ safe arrival in Vung Tao, IOM Viet Nam partnered with the Government and the Sri Lankan Embassy in Hanoi to provide immediate assistance, including food, emergency items, medical aid, hygiene kits, psychosocial counselling and emergency shelter.
“As soon as we received the information from the Sri Lankan embassy, our Protection team was swiftly deployed to Vung Tao to provide assistance and facilitate the voluntary return of migrants,” says Sarat Dash, Chief of Mission 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.”
The voluntary return occurred in two batches with IOM facilitating medical checkups and travel arrangements from Viet Nam back to Colombo, Sri Lanka, and onwards to Jaffna, their hometown.
“When IOM informed us of an opportunity to go back home, I accepted it in a heartbeat,” says Selvan. “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 lifelong savings and house. It was my family’s encouragement that reaffirmed my conviction to go back and start afresh.”
His struggles 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.”
Today, he works full-time on his farm.
“We are making monthly instalments to repay the collaterals. However, without a decent job and stable income, it leaves us with mere pennies to make ends meet,” Selvan says.
While those who have returned insist they would never make the journey again, the rumours of a new ship waiting offshore en route to Canada persist, with brokers lurking in the shadows and preying on people’s socio-economic vulnerabilities.
"My message to all aspiring migrants is, never opt for irregular channels in your migration journey, and never blindly trust the rumours you hear. Conduct thorough research and always go through professional consulates," Selvan says.
IOM’s Dash agrees.
"The economic situation in the country remains fragile and volatile,” he says. “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."
It is of paramount importance for States to strengthen bilateral cooperation, guided by the spirit of responsibility-sharing and solidarity, in coordinated search and rescue operations (SAR) and ensure that migrants and refugees receive timely, life-saving assistance.
IOM Sri Lanka currently provides reintegration support to all returning migrants, including cash and/or in-kind assistance, while focusing on sustainable reintegration and building their socio-economic resilience to help them rebuild their lives. IOM also 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.
The voluntary return and reintegration of Sri Lankan migrants was made possible by the funding from the Government of Canada through the Global Assistance for Irregular Migrants (GAIM) and the Government of Australia through the project “Supporting Bali Process Member States’ Efforts to Provide Return and Reintegration Services to Stranded Migrants.”
For more information about IOM’s assisted voluntary return and reintegration programme, please contact Saskia Kok (email@example.com), IOM Thailand’s Head of Protection.
* The names of the migrants in this story have been changed to protect their identities.
This story was written by Anushma Shrestha, Associate Communications Officer at IOM Thailand.