After 22 days on a boat fleeing Sri Lanka and more than five months in detention, asylum-seeker Jeevan Nanthakumar recently unpacked his suitcases in the home of an Australian pensioner couple.
Nanthakumar — a pseudonym — said he left his homeland and family in January due to “government problems and enemies in my village.”
“I went to India, then was on a boat for 22 days, five days with no food and no water,” the 26-year-old said.
Nanthakumar and others on the boat were eventually picked up and transferred to the remote Australian territory of Christmas Island for a week, then to detention in Queensland state.
He is one of more than 7,000 asylum-seekers to arrive by boat this year — a record influx that has overwhelmed detention centers and seen a return to policies of indefinitely detaining boatpeople on remote Pacific islands.
Canberra hopes it will deter asylum-seekers, many originally from Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Iran and Iraq, from paying people-smugglers in Southeast Asia to help them attempt the perilous sea voyage.
In the meantime, aiming to relieve the strain on the detention system, center-left Labor has launched a homestay program where Australian families temporarily house those seeking asylum while their claims are processed.
The idea is to offer short-term accommodation to those leaving immigration detention on a bridging visa, and help them settle into the community.
“We helped him at the very beginning. My husband drove him to his first Red Cross meeting, showed him how to come back on a train,” said Martha, a retired English professor who offered shelter to Nanthakumar with her husband Phillip.
“We also warned him he does not need to work for less than the minimum wage,” she added. “Other than that, he has been very independent. He has quickly found other Tamil people and a house to live in.”
Nanthakumar spent two weeks with Martha and Phillip at their house in a northern Sydney suburb before finding a more permanent place to live with other members of the Tamil community.
“I met people from Sri Lanka in the detention camps and I will live with them in a house,” he said.
Martha said she got involved after becoming increasingly concerned about the plight of asylum-seekers, many of whom have fled war and persecution.
“We got involved with Amnesty International, we got involved with the whole refugee situation and we wanted to more practically assist the situation,” she said.
“It’s a benefit for us to meet people from other countries and feel that we are helping,” she said. “I think it’s a benefit for our son, who lives here as well, to broaden his understanding of what’s going on in the world. The learning goes both ways.”
About 150 asylum-seekers have been placed with families, for a maximum of six weeks via the Australian Homestay Network initiative. The network’s executive chairman David Bycroft, who is working alongside the immigration department, said it was designed to help asylum-seekers adjust to Australian life.
“The Australian families help the asylum-seeker to use public transport, set up a bank account, fill in medical forms,” he said. “All of the things that we take for granted in Australia, but a new person coming to the country needs help with.”