Video Editor: Kunal Mehra
Illustrations: Kamran Akhtar
Sitting by the edge of a quiet park in Delhi’s Madangir village, Arun takes out pictures of three people whom he hasn’t seen in months. “I stay up all night, zone out of conversations. Sometimes, I’m so lost that I even forget to eat,” he mumbles in an increasingly choked voice.
But Arun was a happy man, just about four months back. In January this year, Arun, his wife and their two sons had traveled all the way to Kerala, from where they were to take a boat to New Zealand. For this journey to be made without passports or visas, he had paid Rs 4 lakh to touts.
On 12 January, the night they were slated to leave for New Zealand, two buses were sent by touts to take the immigrants to the Munambam port in Kerala, where a boat was waiting for them. But the buses were over-crowded and Arun thought he’d take the next one, as was promised by the touts. But that bus never came.
"“They (agents) had fixed a date in Kerala. Two buses were sent to pick us up at night. 70-80 people weren’t able to fit into the buses. I couldn’t board the bus as it was over-crowded. I asked my wife to board the bus, as they (agents) had promised to send another. But that bus did not come, and my wife’s boat had already left. Obviously, I regret the decision.”" - Arun
Arun’s wife and children are not alone. With them are 200-odd Sri Lankan Tamil refugees from Delhi, who have gone missing after reportedly stepping on Devmata 2, the boat that purportedly left for New Zealand.
But Who Sent them to New Zealand & How?
According to Kerala Police, in 2011, a group of people from Delhi’s Madangir had left on a boat from Kerala to Australia. The entire trip was allegedly arranged by a man named Srikanth, a Sri Lankan Tamil who had been living in Kerala.
At that time, the illegal immigrants had managed to reach Australia, from where they were deported back to India. This time, too, residents of Mandangir say Srikanth lured people with promises of instant citizenship, jobs and education in New Zealand.
Srikanth was the uncle of Ravi, a Sri Lankan Tamil living in Delhi, who was friends with Prabhu, the resident point-of-contact in Madangir. It was Prabhu who allegedly managed to convince most residents of Madangir to travel to New Zealand. For this purpose, Srikanth had purchased Devmata 2, a small fishing boat, for about Rs 2 crore in Kerala. On an average, the gang collected about Rs 3-4 lakh per person.
Why Were they Desperate to Escape?
An officer at the Ambedkar Nagar police station, under which the Madangir village falls, told The Quint that the area is home to petty criminals, who are usually involved in cases of minor theft and robbery. So, did this force the people to escape from the ghetto?
Shakuntala, whose two sons, their wives and children went missing after taking the boat from Kerala, says she sent her family to New Zealand as her boys were “frequently harassed” by the police. She had leased her house to pay touts for the journey and has since not heard from her sons and daughter-in-laws – one of them was six months pregnant when they left in January.
"“My elder son had started consuming alcohol. The police would keep on slapping cases of theft and robbery on them. This is why most Madrasis (Tamilians) left this place. The grief in my heart is deep-seated. Yet, I keep hiding it behind my smile. My kids were really precious. I regret sending them there. My two grandchildren were my lifeline. There’s no one left at home to earn. I’m the only breadwinner now.”" - Shakuntala, Resident
With both her house and family gone, Shakuntala regrets the decision to send them to New Zealand. “I thought they would do better in life and that’s why I had sent them. I regret sending my kids there.” With her ailing husband by her side, Shakuntala runs a small tobacco shop to make ends meet.
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