by Stewart Bell
A Sri Lankan migrant has been accepted as a refugee on the grounds that, as a passenger on a smuggling ship that Canada has publicly linked to Tamil rebels, he might be tortured or killed in his homeland.
The MV Ocean Lady in a 2009 file photo-by Debra Brash/Times Colonist
The 24-year-old ethnic Tamil arrived in Canada in 2009 aboard the MV Ocean Lady, which federal officials have identified as a rebel arms smuggling ship. Officials have also claimed a third of the 76 migrants on aboard were Tamil rebels.
But the Immigration and Refugee Board has now turned those statements against the government, ruling that widespread publicity about the ship’s rebel ties had made one of the passengers into a refugee.
A government official said the decision was still being reviewed. The ruling could signal a path for the hundreds of other Sri Lankans smuggled to Canada aboard the Ocean Lady and the MV Sun Sea, which the government had also linked to Tamil rebels.
But as the second anniversary of the Sun Sea’s arrival passed on Monday, the vast majority had not yet been recognized as refugees. According to the latest count released by the IRB, only four Ocean Lady migrants had been accepted as refugees, while 15 had been rejected. One other has withdrawn his claim.
Just 15 of the Sun Sea passengers have been granted refugee status, while another 15 have been rejected. Twenty have also been ordered deported over their links to the Tamil rebels or involvement in human smuggling.
At his Toronto refugee hearing in January, the Tamil shopkeeper — who cannot be named due to a publication ban imposed by the Refugee Board — said his family was repeatedly uprooted by Sri Lanka’s protracted civil war.
“The LTTE [Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam rebels] tried to recruit him relentlessly, and his mother managed to pay small bribes to save him from conscription. The pressure to join continued and became worse after the tsunami in December 2004, as the Tigers lost many soldiers,” the IRB wrote.
But he never joined and, after he was detained for three days in 2009, his mother hired an agent to take him to the capital, Colombo. From there the agent sent him to Thailand, where he lived for a month before boarding the cargo ship to Canada.
Although the shopkeeper had given widely varying versions of his past to Canadian immigration officials, and the Canada Border Services Agency raised concerns about his credibility, the IRB accepted his refugee claim on Aug. 3. A copy was obtained by the National Post.
IRB Member Trudy Shecter wrote that because Canadian officials and media outlets had associated the Ocean Lady with the Tamil rebels, the man might be mistreated by Sri Lankan authorities, whom she said behaved “with reckless disregard” for the rights of Tamils.
“Even if an immigration officer or any other representative of the Sri Lankan government did not know for certain if he is or was an LTTE member, the claimant would certainly be viewed by the government as a person of interest and at least with possible ties to the Tamil Tigers,” she wrote.
“They would also be interested in any information he could provide about his fellow passengers, the ship and the journey. I find that he would either be interrogated at the airport, or tracked down later, when his presence on the Ocean Lady became known to authorities.”
After the Ocean Lady was intercepted off Vancouver Island, the government quickly linked it to the Tamil Tigers. A Canadian intelligence report said some of the passengers were seen wearing “Tamil Tiger embroidered jackets, while others had Tiger tattoos.” One passenger was wanted on an Interpol notice for terrorism.
Ms. Shecter quoted an internal Canadian government report that said 25 of the migrants on the ship were members of the rebel group. She also wrote that the vessel was owned and operated by the LTTE rebels.
As a result, she said, the Tamil shopkeeper would be of interest to Sri Lankan police and military, who would intercept and question him upon his return to Colombo.
“I find that there is more than a mere possibility that the claimant would be stopped, detained, interrogated, tortured and possibly disappeared or even killed since he was on a ship suspected of being owned by and having LTTE members on it,” Ms. Shecter wrote.
Hundreds of Sri Lankan asylum seekers have boarded unseaworthy smuggling ships since the country’s long-running civil war ended in 2009, crushing aspirations of statehood for the island’s ethnic Tamil minority.
While many are seeking asylum in Australia, the Ocean Lady was the first to reach Canada. The following year, the MV Sun Sea followed a similar route to British Columbia carrying 492 Sri Lankans.
The smugglers charged their human cargo fees of $20,000 to $50,000 for the illicit sea voyage to Canada. The scheme was organized out of Bangkok. The RCMP has arrested the suspected organizers of both smuggling operations. Those charged include two Canadians. courtesy: The national Post