Seventy-six Sri Lankan Tamils who arrived in the port of Vancouver last month have begun the process of filing for refugee status, though they continue to be detained by the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA).
The passengers, all of whom are male, were apprehended on October 17 when their ship was seized by the coast guard and the navy. Canada’s Minister of Immigration and Citizenship, Jason Kenney, has stressed the importance of carefully screening the migrants for any connections to the blacklisted minority separatist organization the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE), and has stated that Canada needs to do “a much better job of shutting the back door of immigration for those who seek to abuse [the] asylum system.”
All of the passengers have obtained legal assistance with their refugee claims, often from the lawyers who had represented their relatives now living in Canada, or through Canadian Tamil community groups.
Sue Nathan of the Canadian Tamil Congress said that the men have fled Sri Lanka because of the government’s chronic mistreatment of the country’s Tamil population.
“The target group mainly was based around young men and women, especially young men,” Nathan said. “Living in Sri Lanka is almost like having a death warrant. They will, one way or the other, be persecuted by the Sri Lankan military and Sri Lankan government.”
Nathan cited reports that have emerged from the country that over a quarter of a million Tamils remain trapped in government-run internment camps following last spring’s spate of violence between the LTTE and the Sinhalese-dominated government.
The government’s recent seizure of power in the Tamil-dominated north of the country is widely seen as the peremptory end to a civil conflict that has killed as many as 100,000 people since it began in the seventies.
In recent months, greater numbers of displaced Tamils have attempted to seek asylum outside their native country; another boat of Tamil refugees arrived in Indonesia last month on the way to its intended destination of Australia, but both countries have refused to let the passengers ashore.
Since the arrival of the 76 Tamils in Vancouver, the Sri Lankan government has claimed that one of the passengers is affiliated with the LTTE. The man’s name was subsequently leaked to the press – a development Nathan was extremely displeased with.
“As a refugee you’re seeking asylum in a country because your life is in danger. His life, and also the lives of his family members, have been put in jeopardy, and if he is ever sent back to Sri Lanka I can definitely say that his death warrant has been issued,” Nathan said.
Lee Rankin, a Vancouver-based lawyer who has offered preliminary legal counsel to about 30 of the passengers, said that since the Tamil men have now been identified and their refugee claims are currently being processed, the government should not continue holding them.
“The government’s comments suggest that they are intending to take a hard line on this particular boatload of people,” Rankin said. “The ones that I’ve dealt with do not seem to be any different from any of the thousands of Tamils that come to Canada. They’re ethnic Tamils; they obviously feel vulnerable. I haven’t met any that said that they were in any way associated with the LTTE.”
Processing the refugee claimants before the immigration review board has been a slow process, and only a handful of them were brought before the board within 48 hours of their detention.
“They should be released in the ordinary course once their identities have been established, but we’re learning that the CBSA, on behalf of the Canadian government…are now bringing forward allegations that there’s security concerns with respect to them,” said Rainkin. “There’s no obvious reason to do this, other than the minister’s promise to get tough with this group of people. They’ve established their identity, and now they’re going to go after them on security grounds.”
Another passenger, a minor, was released from detention last week.
Canada has accepted 93 per cent of the Tamils who claimed refugee status in the past nine months,
Officials at the Ministry of Immigration and Citizenship, as well as the CBSA, declined to comment.