By Alasdair Pal and Santhush Fernando
KUDAMADUWELLA, Sri Lanka (Reuters) - As anarchy gripped the Sri Lankan city of Colombo in May, Meenu Mekala and Nirosh Ravindra gambled their family's life savings on a two-week, 4,700-km voyage aboard a rusting trawler with their two young sons. The decision ended in ruin.
Meenu, a Buddhist, and Nirosh, a Christian, met and fell in love as migrant labourers in Dubai, despite opposition from their families. They married in 2005 in Nirosh's home village of Kudamaduwella, two hours' drive north of Colombo.
They are among hundreds of Sri Lankans who have attempted to escape an unprecedented economic meltdown by boarding fishing boats bound for Australia.
Data from Sri Lanka's navy shows almost 1,000 people, many of them children, have been intercepted in Sri Lankan waters attempting to flee the country in the last three months. Exiting the country unofficially is considered an offence.
Some, like Meenu and Nirosh, made it to Australian waters, where they were caught, deported and then prosecuted by Sri Lankan authorities.
Meenu faces the charge of leaving the country from an unauthorised port, according to legal documents from the Criminal Investigation Department of Sri Lanka's police seen by Reuters.
Nirosh, accused of an additional charge of assisting in the logistics of the journey, was denied bail and awaits trial.
He denies the additional charge against him, Meenu said.
Nirosh's lawyer did not respond to requests for comment on his case. Sri Lanka's police and navy declined to comment on the couple's case, citing the ongoing legal proceedings.
"I was heartbroken," Meenu said, recalling the flight back to Sri Lanka on June 18 with one guard for every two passengers.
A spokesperson for the Australian Border Force declined to comment on the family's case, citing confidentiality.
Hit hard by the pandemic, which decimated tourism, and by tax cuts pushed through by the government of then-President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka is experiencing its worst economic crisis since independence from Britain in 1948.
Fuel queues and soaring inflation have become the norm for Sri Lankans. Months of unrest toppled Rajapaksa in July, after protesters occupied government buildings in the commercial capital Colombo.
On May 9, after deadly violence flared between pro- and anti-government demonstrators, Meenu and Nirosh made the decision to leave.
Meenu, 44, and Nirosh, 46, paid 500,000 Sri Lankan rupees ($1,400) in total to unidentified smugglers for themselves and their two sons, aged 13 and 11.
Aboard Sri Lankan navy Fast Attack Craft P 4446, a lookout above deck sights a fishing boat sitting low in the water – a tell-tale sign of a boat loaded with migrants.
"Starboard, two nautical miles, one ship sighted sir," a voice on the radio crackled on the ship's bridge. Officer-in-command PRPD Dayarathne gently eased the throttle forward.
The daily patrol is one of around 50 along Sri Lanka's coastline, according to the navy, as authorities attempt to intercept migrants before they make it out of Sri Lankan waters.
Bare-chested fishermen stared as a five-man detail boarded the boat, armed with machine guns and batons. They searched the men and the boat, but it was carrying little more than nets and fish.
The Sri Lankan navy intercepted one boat smuggling would-be migrants in 2021, and none in 2020. In the three months to July, that number rose to 15.
A total of 911 people have been arrested attempting to leave Sri Lanka illegally in 2022, putting it on course to surpass 2013, the year the navy began keeping detailed records. Almost all were bound for Australia.
"We have seen these boats carrying nearly 100 people," Dayarathne said. "It's very dangerous."
If caught by Australian or Sri Lankan authorities, passengers face having passports cancelled for up to five years. Suspected organisers are denied bail and put on trial in Sri Lanka, with the prospect of jail terms.
In contrast to previous waves of attempted migration by Tamil groups persecuted during the country's civil war, many are now from the majority Sinhala community.
"Every Sri Lankan thinks if you have a chance, you leave." said Lakshan Dias, a lawyer who has represented would-be migrants. "It is pure desperation."
Some, like Meenu's vessel, make it through, slipping past patrols under cover of darkness.
For the first two nights, the seas off Sri Lanka's southern coast were rough. Crammed onto the 30-foot boat, 41 passengers battled nausea and hunger as waves pounded the hull.
The family slept in the open air to escape the stench of vomit in the hold. By day, the harsh sun and salt water spraying over the deck burnt their skin. Meenu said she wanted to turn back, but it was too late.
By June 9, and suffering a fuel problem, the boat neared the Cocos Islands, a remote Australian coral atoll off the southern coast of Indonesia.
It wasn't long before they were intercepted by the Australian coast guard - one of four vessels that made it from Sri Lanka that month, according to the Australian Border Force.
After around a week on a series of Australian coast guard vessels, they disembarked and were told they would be sent back to Sri Lanka, Meenu said.
Nirosh's arrest has left the family without any source of income, as well as mounting legal fees.
Meenu visits him twice a week, taking an hour-long bus ride to the prison in Negombo and bringing him home-cooked food to share with other prisoners.
On a recent visit, he complained about the poor quality of the drinking water, and pleaded with her to get him out, she said.
With the family's passports cancelled for five years, their dream of returning to Dubai is on hold and Meenu is left to care for the children at home, where icons of Buddha and Jesus adorn the walls.
(Reporting by Alasdair Pal and Santhush Fernando in Kadumaduwella; additional reporting by Uditha Jayasinghe and Kirsty Needham in Sydney; Editing by Mike Collett-White and Alexandra Hudson)