SYDNEY – The wounds from his torture were still bleeding when Sri Lankan asylum seeker Sutha was picked up by the Australian Navy from a sinking boat in the Indian Ocean.
He had spent 16 days at sea on a leaky vessel with 48 other men, fearing with each sunset that he would not live to see the next day but grateful for the chance to die at sea, and not at the hands of his captors.
“When I was going to jump into the boat, only one choice: to save your life, and jumping was the only option. I thought, ‘Right, in Sri Lanka I’m going to die anyway so I’ll take a chance,’ ” the ethnic Tamil, 30, said in Australia.
Sutha — speaking through an interpreter and under an assumed name out of fear of reprisals against his family back in Sri Lanka — escaped from police custody there after five weeks of excruciating torture.
He was raped, had wires forced into his genitals, was doused with petrol, beaten with whips and bats, and branded with metal, he says.
His internal injuries were so bad that he required surgery when he arrived in Australia and his slender frame is a patchwork of scars. Sri Lanka has denied allegations that security forces tortured Tamil prisoners.
Sutha had managed to bribe his way to freedom just two days before his scheduled execution and made his way to Galle, where he took a people-smuggler boat to the Cocos Islands, an Australian outpost in the Indian Ocean, seeking protection from those accusing him of being a Tamil Tiger rebel.
Instead, he has been placed on a temporary visa, banned from work and has to pay bills, travel and eat with 80 Australian dollars ($72) a week after rent. He has a room in a house crowded with seven others in Greenway, a Sydney suburb that is at the center of a vitriolic debate in Australia on refugees, days before the Saturday’s election.
Greenway is held by the ruling Labor party with a wafer-thin 0.9 percent margin. Race divisions in the multicultural area tend to loom large in national elections, with the local conservative candidate pushing opposition leader Tony Abbott’s “Stop the Boats” campaign.
Asylum seekers have been a prominent issue in Australia’s elections since the emergence of anti-immigration firebrand Pauline Hanson in 1996 drove a shift to the right on race issues, according to Jana Favero from the Asylum Seeker Resource Center.
Favero has spent 10 days driving from Melbourne to Sydney on a myth-busting mission through rural towns trying to “take the heat out of the debate, to remove the politics” from the flash point issue.
The Hot Potato van visited 10 towns, served up 10,000 free hot potatoes and had 10,000 one-on-one conversations with Australians across two states to bust the 10 most common myths about asylum seekers arriving by boat, including that what they are doing is illegal and that they have jumped the “queue.”
“In certain towns there were some myths that were more prevalent than others — for example in Echuca (in Victoria) most people really believed that asylum seekers are coming here to take over our way of life, but they were also able to name the three non-Anglo families in their town,” Favero said.
Both sides of politics have vowed a crackdown on so-called boat people this election. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has effectively closed Australia to unauthorized maritime arrivals by banishing them for permanent resettlement to Manus Island in Papua New Guinea or Nauru in the Pacific.
Opponent and frontrunner Abbott proposes forcing all boat arrivals onto three-year temporary visas and a welfare-for-work program, without any family reunion, appeal, legal rights or chance of permanent settlement in Australia.
Phil Glendenning, president of the Refugee Council of Australia, said the island nation’s insularity and historical racism has allowed politicians to turn the relatively modest flow of boat people into a border-security issue.
There were 13,108 such arrivals in Australia in the first six months of 2013, compared with 6,000 to 7,000 refugees crossing into Turkey from Syria every day.
“If you demonize people, stick them out on Manus, out on Nauru, put them on Christmas Island in remote camps away from the cities, people don’t see the human face,” he said.
“They don’t see who these people are, they don’t see who loves them, they don’t see their family members, and so consequently it becomes an ‘issue’.”
Over the past decade Glendenning has tracked the fortunes of asylum seekers returned to more than 20 countries by Australia on the basis that their fears of persecution were unfounded.
Of those sent back to Afghanistan, he claims 33 have been killed, including two children. In Sri Lanka, nine did not survive their return.
“It’s a blessing and a curse that people in this country don’t really understand what war is like, what it smells like, feels like, the horror of it and the need to get away from it, we don’t get that,” said Glendenning.
It is a fact that resonates with Sutha, who feels like a prisoner despite being released from immigration detention eight months ago.
Australians treat him with respect, he says, but there’s a gulf between their lives and his.
“Physically, maybe, I’m out, but mentally I’m not out yet,” he said.