Iraqi Boat People Arrive in Sri Lanka

A small boat overloaded with refugees fleeing the destruction of their homes in Fallujah has been rescued from the waters off Sri Lanka. More “boat people” can be expected to make the hazardous journey from Iraq in the coming weeks, as rumors of tens of millions of dollars of emergency aid to be sent to regions devastated by this week’s earthquake filter through to the growing refugee population in that war torn country.

The 1,243 men, women, and children rescued from a small riverboat with a makeshift sail that was foundering in the harbor of Kokkilai on the devastated northeast coast of the island nation, are being held in a refugee camp once reserved for captured Tamil Tiger rebels while the Indian government processes their requests for political asylum. In order to avoid deportation, they will need to prove to Indian authorities that they will face political persecution, if they return to their country of origin.

“We have to think of the millions of Indians who have had their normally comfortable lives devastated for the first time in recent memory by natural disasters, for whom the current wave of generosity from our friends in the international community is intended, before allowing merely economic refugees to make an end run around our immigration laws,” a statement from New Delhi said.

President Bush was forced to backtrack from an earlier statement that “those who attempt to flee from justice and freedom to caves in Afghanistan or rogue nations or anywhere else will be tracked down and implanted with computer chips.” Just-about-out-the-door Secretary of State Colin Powell yesterday told the UN that the president was only referring to “Iraqis who conceivably could be thought of as potential terrorists or enemies of the United States,” and he vowed that the refugee problem would be left up to the individual nations involved to deal with.

He warned the Indian government, however, that the desire to help the needy by rescuing foundering boatloads of illegal immigrants would not be allowed to interfere with security concerns incurred by the presence of US aid workers. “Terrorist elements,” Powell said, “would immediately exploit any such signs of an increasingly porous border. We have intelligence that terrorists have gained access to ships and other secure locations by pretending to drown with a bunch of women and children. America is not about to stand by and allow that to happen,” Powell said.

Some conservatives in the Indian government are claiming that the boat people are merely using the war as an excuse to seek a better life in northeastern Sri Lanka, where international aid and assistance is steadily raising living standards. They point out, however, that hundreds of thousands of Indians have had their homes leveled, and an immanent threat of epidemic hangs over the region. “Essential water delivery and sewage disposal systems are destroyed, and the entire infrastructure including the electrical grid is still in disarray.”

Currently, even in the best neighborhoods of Colombo, there is only twelve hours of electricity per day, and this only intermittently. Most areas of the capitol have between six and eight hours of power per 24 hours. Gasoline also has become scarce owing to disrupted pipelines.

Bechtel Group Inc., a US contractor, has volunteered to accept a contract to reconstruct the region’s devastated infrastructure, but this project could take weeks and cost India billions and billions of dollars. If the trickle of Iraqis seeking greater opportunity abroad becomes a flood after the liberation of more Iraqi cities, the project can be expected to go over budget. In addition to the four million dollars of direct aid with plenty more in the mail, Powell said the US would contribute to reconstruction efforts by providing bodyguards for Bechtel executives working in the region.

When we called Bechtel to inquire about the estimated time span of the reconstruction project, a spokeswoman told us that they had to send for parts to Italy and Germany, “which should be here any day now.” But she added that “the security situation created by unidentified boats recently spotted in the region has made it more difficult to get these imported.”