Oct 17 (BT) IN KARAN'S recurring nightmare, a great wave sweeps his teenage children overboard and he watches as they drown. He knows he should dive in after them, but he feels paralysed and all he can do is fumble with the straps and buckles of his life vest in a vain attempt to secure it. Before he can rescue them, he is awake and drenched in perspiration.
Karan's eyes moisten as he recalls his nightmare.
Karan's eyes moisten as he recalls his nightmare. Thankfully, his children are alive and well and never even came close to drowning, but the treacherous voyage is more than just a figment of his unconscious.
On August 28, he boarded a fishing boat in the south-west Indian port of Mangalore with his wife, children and 49 other Sri Lankan refugees. Its GPS was set for Christmas Island, but the vessel never got there.
Last month, David Holly, Australia's consul-general to Chennai, the capital of the southern state of Tamil Nadu, warned of the perils of travelling to Australia by boat. He didn't single out the Sri Lankans, but there's little doubt he was referring to them.
During Sri Lanka's 30-year civil war, India took in more than 100,000 ethnic Tamil refugees, many of whom are now seeking to take their asylum claims to Australia. In the past year alone, police in Tamil Nadu say they have stopped 17 boats from setting sail and 900 people have been arrested.
Many more boats have evaded authorities, attempting the journey to Christmas Island with only slim odds of success: vessels have run out of fuel, turned back of their own volition, and been captured in Indonesia. At least two are lost at sea.
Karan says he was well aware of the risks when he arranged passage to Australia, but it was too dangerous to return to Sri Lanka and life in an Indian refugee camp is a dead end. He and his wife have been in Tamil Nadu since the early 1990s, but still carry identity cards marking them as refugees. Since India is not a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention it is under no obligation to grant citizenship to refugees or their children.
Karan's two children, although born and raised in India, have no more rights to naturalisation than their parents. ''The quality of life is poor here, I'm not satisfied with this life,'' he says. ''For 22 years I have been here, and I don't want to be a refugee any more. I heard that Australia is doing good things for refugees, giving citizenship, health care.''
Karan and his wife paid $3800 for passage to Christmas Island (their two teenage children got to travel for free). The 16-metre iron fishing boat they boarded left late at night, with its 53 passengers crouched in the hull - the part of the vessel fishermen pack with ice to keep their catch fresh. At first, they hid to evade the coast guard, but bad weather kept them down there with the hatch sealed for most of the trip.
Karan says that in hindsight, it was a mistake to leave at the tail end of the south-western monsoon.
''We couldn't breathe in the boat. People were urinating and vomiting, they were passing out from the smell down there, but we couldn't come up, it was too rough, we risked being thrown overboard.''
Five days into the journey, as the boat neared Kanyakumari at India's tip, its GPS failed. The decision to return to land was unanimous; Karan says by then people were begging to get off the boat, some even threatening to throw themselves overboard.
''I didn't care if I was arrested by police and sent back to Sri Lanka, I just wanted to get off the boat. I had a red and white cloth ready to surrender with, and I didn't care if I got arrested.''
After asking directions from fishermen, the asylum seekers finally docked in Cochin Harbour in the southern state of Kerala. The police were none the wiser. And after less than a week at sea, Karan was able to settle back into his old life without incident; his casual job as a mobile phone technician in Chennai remained open, and due to an administrative error, the family was able to return to Gummidipoondi refugee camp without having to answer questions about their absence.
According to government records, 67,682 Sri Lankan Tamils live in 112 government-run refugee camps spread out across Tamil Nadu, a state where refugees and locals share Tamil as a lingua franca.