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, 4,700km 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.