Reunion – Before he decided to undertake a perilous 22-day journey by sea to Reunion, 35-year-old Balapu Waduge Prasad Indika Dilan Mendis had never heard of the tiny French island off the eastern coast of Africa.
On March 21 last year, two days after being set adrift on a raft without food or water following a boat mishap, six Sri Lankans including Mendis arrived.
“If we had not been seen by the tourists it would be over for us,” he said of the ordeal; Reunion’s waters are notorious for sharks.
The six men had traversed 4,000km across the Indian Ocean that stretches between South Asia and Africa, crossing the equator along the way.
They came in search of Europe. More would follow.
It was the first of five boats that have brought 145 Sri Lankans to Reunion in less than a year.
On February 5 this year, the latest and largest boatload arrived with 72 people on board, including eight women and five children.
On February 14, 64 were deported after their asylum appeals were rejected.
It is the only developed region in the Indian Ocean, they will not go to Seychelles or Mauritius because they know they will be turned back. From the first boat, we knew that more boats will come.
There is a steady trickle of asylum seekers from nearby African islands but its new-found appeal for Sri Lankan asylum seekers has caught French authorities off-guard.
From 2016 to 2018, the island received 105 asylum applications. Sri Lankans accounted for most requests, followed by Indians and Comorians, according to the prefecture of Reunion.
In public comments, French and Sri Lankan authorities have said that the influx shows that Reunion is now on a human-trafficking route that was earlier taking migrants eastwards.
“Classically immigration was happening towards the east; Indonesia, Malaysia and Australia,” said Anthony Goreau, a geographer at the University of Bordeaux.
Reunion, a fraction of the size of Sri Lanka, hosts fewer than one million people.
But it is not chance that has brought the Sri Lankans to the remote island, according to Goreau.
“You cannot put your fate in the hands of luck when you are going to be on a boat for over two weeks and navigating cyclones,” Goreau said.
Four of the five boats arrived in the middle of cyclone season.
Mendis said he was introduced to Reunion by an agent, who showed him a video about the island and promised to arrange passage for a sum of 5,00,000 Sri Lankan rupees, about $2,800. Others in his group paid between $1,500 and $3,000.
A decades-long Tamil rebellion in northern Sri Lanka that was crushed in 2009 is at the root of many desperate bids to leave.
“Though the conflict officially ended in 2009, the immigration flux persists till today,” Goreau said, adding that the flight of minorities, mainly Tamil victims of persecution, is a factor.
The sudden surge in arrivals can also be linked to the political crisis that unfolded in Sri Lanka last winter.
Mahinda Rajapaksa, the former president and architect of the final phase of a government offensive that wiped out the Tamil rebellion, laid claim to the premiership in a bid to remove Ranil Wickremesinghe, the current prime minister.
Rajapaksa later backed down but the resurgence of the popular Sinhala-Buddhist leader in Sri Lankan politics sparked fears of aggression against those connected to the rebellion, and against minorities.
It is this fear that Mendis and many others are citing in their plea for asylum.
Hailing from Mannar island, an offshoot to the northwest of the Sri Lankan mainland, Mendis said he was orphaned at five. His parents were killed during the civil war because of links to the Tamil Tigers, a group demanding a separate state for people of Tamil origin.
He was later taken under the wing of a Catholic priest in Negombo, a major port city north of the capital Colombo, which is predominantly Christian.
Sri Lanka is a Buddhist-majority country with a significant population of Hindus -12.6 percent, Muslims -10 percent and Christians – 7.5 percent.
Though most Sinhalese are Buddhists and most Tamils are Hindus, there are also Tamil and Sinhalese people who practise Christianity.
Mendis, a mechanic by profession, is one of them.
Sporting a conspicuous metallic cross around his neck, he now lives at a Hindu ashram in Reunion under the care of Swami Advayananda Sarasvati.
The choice of Reunion does not surprise Sarasvati. It is not his first brush with asylum seekers.
“It is the only developed region in the Indian Ocean, they will not go to Seychelles or Mauritius because they know they will be turned back,” Sarasvati said. “From the first boat, we knew that more boats will come.”
Reunion was settled and colonised by the French in the 17th century and remained largely in French hands with a brief spell of British rule.
Coffee plantations were established after colonisation, soon to be overtaken by sugar plantations that continue to be the mainstay of the economy.
When slavery was abolished in 1848, wage labour was imported from India, China and Africa to work on the plantations. Christianity is the predominant religion but Hindus and Muslims abound.
“There are groups in Sri Lanka that believe that to be Sri Lankan means to be Buddhist,” Sarasvati said. “In Reunion all religions live peacefully. They (the asylum seekers) think it is paradise here.”
This promise of harmonious existence seems to have attracted not just Sri Lankans, but Indians, as well.
Two Indian Muslims are currently seeking asylum on the grounds that an increasingly assertive Hindu nationalism poses a threat to them.
Most of the labourers from French colonies in south India are of Tamil origin.
The presence of a strong Sri Lankan Tamil community in France, and particularly in Paris, could also explain the choice of Reunion, experts said.
However, determining which of the asylum seekers face a genuine threat in their homeland and who are seeking better economic opportunities will be a challenge for French authorities.
The frequency of the arrivals and the relative well-being of the seafarers after almost three weeks on a boat has also raised doubts about the veracity of their stories. However, Sri Lankan asylum seekers are no strangers to long arduous sea voyages.
“We were well prepared with food and water and everything was taken care of by the agent,” said one Sri Lankan man, who did want to be identified for fear of jeopardising his asylum request.
Until a few years ago, Australia, another distant country, was the destination of choice, but migration to there fell after the country adopted a stricter immigration policy – including processing asylum seekers who arrive by boat at offshore facilities in island-nations of Nauru and Papua New Guinea, denying them entry into Australia.
It has also turned back boats to deter those arriving by sea.
But Sri Lankans coming to Reunion are risking more than deportation.
A boat bound for the French territory was intercepted by the Sri Lankan navy in September with 90 people onboard.
They are now facing charges because leaving the island without permission is a crime under Sri Lankan law.
Mendis’s asylum plea has already been rejected once but he has filed an appeal.
On February 12, he celebrated his first birthday in Reunion, but whether he will be able to start over on the island remains uncertain.