Family’s attempt to flee Sri Lanka ends in ruin

STORY: This Sri Lankan navy vessel is looking for potential human smuggling boats.

As more people look to escape the crisis-hit country, patrols along the coast have become more regular.

They check this fishing boat. It's carrying nothing more than nets and fish.

Leaving the country unofficially is illegal in Sri Lanka - but people have increasingly been willing to take that risk.

Nearly a thousand people have been arrested this year to date - almost a record-breaking number.

Meenu Mekala's husband is among them.

In late May, they boarded a 30-foot boat under the cover of night - with their two teenage sons.

They paid their life savings of 1400 dollars for the one-way trip to Australia.

“We only had seawater to bathe with and use in the toilet. We couldn’t use fresh water because then we could have run out of it. We suffered from hunger unlike ever before. Not even in our childhood did we suffered such hunger. Then we couldn’t sleep because the boat was rocking so much."

Their ship suffered a fuel problem - and eventually it was intercepted by the Australian coast guard.

The family was sent back to Sri Lanka.

Meenu faces the charge of leaving the country from an unauthorized port.

Her husband is accused of an additional charge of assisting in the logistics of the journey - and now awaits trial in prison.

“When we returned, four people including my husband were placed in remand prison. Our main breadwinner is my husband. My husband is inside the prison. Without him we don’t have an income. We have to pay lawyers, children have to go to school. When the country’s economy is in its worst shape, we have fallen into a bigger hole. That’s what has happened to us.”

Hit hard by the pandemic and economic mismanagement, Sri Lanka is experiencing its worst economic crisis in decades.

But Meenu's family - with their passports cancelled for five years - won't be able to leave it any time soon.