In Reunion, Sri Lankan migrants subject to local tensions and trouble between France and the United Kingdom

Crammed on the deck of a dilapidated fishing boat, 69 Sri Lankans, including seven women and six children, arrived on Saturday January 14 in the early morning at the port of Pointe des Galets, in Reunion, under escort of the maritime gendarmerie . A gymnasium was requisitioned and transformed into an emergency waiting area to accommodate them.

Since July 31, 2022, it is the fifth boat of the same type transporting men and families fleeing Sri Lanka, plagued by economic recession, political unrest and communal violence, which has managed to reach the French island. some 4,300 kilometers away. In just over five months, after a perilous crossing of the Indian Ocean, 191 Sri Lankan refugees have been taken in charge by the local French authorities. In 2018 and 2019, 275 had already docked in Reunion aboard six boats, whose navigation devices are disconnected so that the boat is not spotted until the last moment. Their objective: to reach this piece of Europe in the Indian Ocean in order to obtain the right of asylum.

No “invasion”

While associations and individuals are mobilizing to welcome them, each new arrival arouses xenophobic reactions on social networks. The lawyers defending them are attacked with virulence. “Fortunately, these vulnerable people are not reading these shocking words”, reassures one of them, Xavier Belliard. In recent weeks, several mayors have claimed that they cannot receive refugees on a long-term basis, due to the shortage of social housing, a nagging problem in the department. On October 26, 2022, the deputy La France insoumise Jean-Hugues Ratenon wrote to the Prime Minister, Elisabeth Borne, to ask her to urgently seize “this serious problem” adding that, in an island hit by an unemployment rate of 19% and a poverty rate of 37%, “the arrival of these migrants is less and less accepted by the people of Reunion”.

For “put things in perspective”, the prefect, Jérôme Filippini, repeated during a press conference on Friday 13 January that“one cannot objectively speak of a surge or a phenomenon of magnitude or invasion” on an island with 860,000 inhabitants. On the same day, 46 of the 53 Sri Lankans who arrived on another fishing boat, on December 24, 2022, were returned to their country on board a specially chartered flight, after their admission to French soil was refused. “It is a signal of firmness given to those who would like to join Reunion illegally. It is not a good destination for these dangerous maritime odysseys”underlines Mr. Filippini, specifying “that on average, seven out of ten new arrivals were deported”. In November 2022, a “France-Sri Lanka seminar” was held in Saint-Denis de La Réunion in order to prevent departures from the ports located around Colombo. According to the prefect, there is a “good cooperation” with the Sri Lankan authorities. surveys for “Assistance with illegal entry and stay of foreigners” were also opened by the Saint-Denis public prosecutor’s office.

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