Sri Lankan seeks asylum in Mexico after long, roundabout journey

News Stories, 29 August 2007

© UNHCR/M.Echandi
Sri Lankan refugee Thasan takes a stroll in his rented house in the Mexican border city of Tapachula.

TAPACHULA, Mexico, August 29 (UNHCR) Every year, hundreds of thousands of people cross the porous border between Central America and Mexico. Most are escaping poverty in countries such as Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador and ultimately seeking a better life in North America.

But several hundred are escaping persecution in their home countries. The Mexican Commission of Aid to Refugees (COMAR) says that last year 476 people applied for asylum in Mexico, including 296 in the southern Mexican border province of Chiapas.

The bulk of these asylum seekers are from countries in Central and South America, but many like Sri Lankan fisherman Thasan have come from other continents, either on their own or with the help of smugglers. Most expect to reach the United States or Canada and apply for asylum there.

Unlike most of the asylum seekers from other continents, Thasan never planned to come to the Americas. He said he stowed away on a passenger liner in the Maldive Islands last year, hoping to find sanctuary in Europe he got a shock when he sneaked off at the first port of call and found himself in Guatemala.

That was a mistake, but once in the Central American nation he decided to join the undocumented flow of migrants and refugees travelling north to neighbouring Mexico, where locals and the media tend to regard them all as illegal immigrants and behind various ills, including delinquency and arms and narcotics trafficking.

Driving him on were painful memories from Sri Lanka, where the 33-year-old ethnic Tamil from the north-east town of Mullaittivu claims he was harassed by both the government and the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). He was imprisoned without charge for two years and then his brother was press-ganged by the LTTE. "Every day, people die there," a sad-eyed Thasan noted.

Then the Indian Ocean tsunami struck on December 26, 2004 killing his parents and his sister. The natural disaster led to a lull in hostilities, but Thasan says that in 2006 the LTTE came back looking for him. He and three other forced recruits looked for a way to escape. He cadged a lift on a fishing boat to the Maldives, where his fateful journey to the Americas began.

Once in Guatemala, Thasan headed north, crossed the Suchiate River and reached the southern Mexican city of Tapachula, where the UN refugee agency monitors mixed migratory flows along the border in a search for refugees and asylum seekers.

Since Hurricane Stan destroyed much of the infrastructure in Central America in October 2005, including 300 kilometres of railway lines, the bulk of those following the northbound mixed migratory routes enter Mexico on foot and mostly with the help of smugglers. It is an arduous and often dangerous journey.

Unlike most of those using the mixed migratory routes, including other refugees, Thasan decided he wanted to seek asylum in Mexico and so sought out the Shelter Belen for Migrants, UNHCR's implementing partner in Tapachula. After talking to the priest who runs the shelter, he turned up at the COMAR office and applied for refugee status.

While Thasan waited for a decision about his status, he started taking Spanish lessons at the Autonomous University of Chiapas. "I have met a British and a French girl at the university. Everybody is nice to me. Here everything is normal," said Thasan, who has received an allowance from UNHCR and help from fellow refugees.

"A Colombian refugee family who live nearby helped me. They gave me a radio and a kitchen set, and another neighbour gave me a mattress," he said, while adding: "I wish I could get my driver's licence soon so I can start working."

Thasan seems content to settle in Mexico, though he admits that he feels lonely at times. It is harder for the refugees from other continents to integrate locally they look different, they don't speak the language, they have different customs and cuisine. As urban refugees, they don't have a social network to help them deal with their problems, while they also suffer from popular misconceptions about migrants.

But Thasan, who was granted refugee status in March, said he wants to make a go of things and find a new family to replace his lost kin. "Will I marry a Mexican girl? Why not! But you see, my culture is different. You only marry one time in your life, so you can't spoil it."

By Mariana Echandi in Mexico City, Mexico