Almost five hundred Tamil asylum seekers originally from Sri Lanka have spent three months at sea in a cramped 59-metre rust bucket that docked at a military terminal at Victoria near Vancouver BC two days ago. The M.V Sun Sea was carrying 490 refugees who claimed that they were fleeing persecution in Sri Lanka. Canadian security officials were among those that boarded the vessel on arrival; they say they are trying to determine whether anybody on the vessel is a member of the LTTE, banned in Canada as a terrorist organisation.
The impending arrival of the ship drew an angry response from many Canadians. Public Safety Minister Vic Toews said he had no doubt there was illegal activity, and maybe terrorists, onboard the ship. He claims that each refugee paid $40,000 to $50,000 for the journey that started in Thailand, and that the human smugglers stood to pocket a cool 20 million dollars from the voyage: he charged the LTTE as being behind the operation. Another Liberal MP worried that the women could be forced to work in the sex trade to repay their passage, pointing out that there were 90 women and 45 children on the ship.
"We know there are human smugglers preying on these people in refugee camps," confirms Manjula Selvarajah, of the Canadian Tamil Congress. Meanwhile, almost a hundred Tamils living in Toronto have claimed that 150 of their relatives may be on the ship.
Many Canadian say that the ship is not a refugee ship but part of a criminal enterprise. They point out that she started from Thailand and not Sri Lanka, which would have been normal had she been a genuine asylum vessel. She had also undergone major modifications to make room for the passengers. Vic Toews seemed to confirm this view when he said, “The Sun Sea itself was modified in order to make this trip and maximise the number of persons and the resulting profits”. In addition to tarps, hammocks, and makeshift cramped quarters, a sanitation system had been installed for almost five hundred people. “The evidence that I’ve been provided with at this point shows that it’s a sophisticated operation that has deliberately taken advantage of our system,” he said, adding that this was not a case of “people jumping on the first cargo ship that happened to come by.” The minister confirmed that the boat followed the same route as the ‘Ocean Lady’, another vessel that reached Canada last year with 76 Tamil asylum seekers.
Canadian officials say that they have evidence that the LTTE is behind the operation; they claim that the banned outfit is trying to generate money by profits from human smuggling. After Sri Lanka and India, Canada is home to the largest Tamil community in the world.
The asylum seekers are now being medically examined and will be moved to jails in Vancouver Island and Maple Ridge. Experts suggest that many of them will end up living legally in Canada after processing; in the last two years, 90% of Tamil asylum seekers have been successful in doing so. They point out that, as a signatory to the UN Convention on Refugees, Canada must process all refugee claimants who manage to reach Canadian soil.
This may not convince many in Canada, who are appalled that it may cost the taxpayer about $22 million in legal fees for refugee hearings and appeals. Many want their government to ensure that criminals or terrorists do not hijack the Canadian refugee system. A protest was organised by the “Canada First Immigration Reform Committee” in Vancouver a day after the “Sun Sea” docked. Director of the Committee Paul Fromm called the Tamils migrants and said that they were making a mockery of Canadian security. He questioned why the government did not turn the vessel away before it reached Canadian waters.