Border agents’ surprise home visits to Tamil migrants ‘appalling’: critics

Posted by admin on Apr 21st, 2011

By Douglas Quan, Postmedia News April 21, 2011

VANCOUVER — Over the past few months, Canada Border Services Agency officers have been showing up unannounced at the homes of many Tamil migrants from the MV Sun Sea, in some cases going into their homes and searching their bedrooms. Government officials say they are making sure that the refugee claimants are complying with the terms and conditions of their release from detention. But lawyers for some of the migrants say some of the enforcement actions have gone too far and demonstrate an “appalling” abuse of power. One migrant living just outside Vancouver told Postmedia News through an interpreter that she was home alone when three CBSA officers knocked on the door of her apartment. The officers presented a sheet of paper stating in Tamil who they were. The sheet also showed photographs of each member of her family.

While one officer stood with her in the hallway, the other two officers went through the apartment — including both bedrooms — and opened closets and cupboards, she said.

“We thought Canadians are free of harassment from authorities,” said her husband, who was at work at the time.

Postmedia News agreed not to identify the couple because of their ongoing refugee claim.

Samuel Nalliah, a Tamil-Canadian who has been providing assistance to some of the families, said one woman told him that an officer looked underneath her bed during one visit. She didn’t realize at first what the CBSA officers were doing after they entered her home; she thought they were looking to use the washroom, Nalliah said.

Gabriel Chand, a lawyer who has represented some of the Sun Sea migrants, said one of his clients told him that a CBSA officer entered her bedroom and proceeded to ask her whether certain items of clothing belonged to her.

“It was appalling the way they were treating these people,” he said. “Completely inappropriate.”

Chand said he has no problem with the government knocking on doors to check if migrants are living where they said they would be living. But he said they have no business entering homes.

“How can you get permission from someone who doesn’t speak English?” he asked. At best, he added, the authorities are getting “veiled permission” from the migrants to enter.

CBSA officials said Thursday officers won’t enter a home without the owner’s consent. They denied that officers go into peoples’ closets or drawers.

The purpose of the visits is to ensure that migrants are adhering to the terms of their release. Typically, the Immigration and Refugee Board requires a person to pay a bond, report once a week to CBSA offices, and provide an address where they will be staying.

These conditions are imposed to “mitigate the risk that may be involved in releasing them,” such as the risk that they fail to show up at a future immigration hearing, said Patrizia Giolti, a CBSA spokeswoman.

“Verifications of information allow the CBSA to ensure the whereabouts of the individuals and thereby ensure the safety and security of those in Canada.”

If officers are ever asked to leave, they will respect that request and “leave immediately,” added Bernee Bolton, another CBSA spokeswoman. She encouraged anyone who has a complaint about a CBSA visit to contact a CBSA office.

Asked why CBSA officers don’t bring an interpreter along during visits, officials said doing so might “jeopardize the health and safety of an untrained person.”

Douglas Cannon, another lawyer who has been representing some of the migrants, said home entries are typically reserved only in cases where someone is deemed to be an “extreme” flight risk, a danger to the public or a security risk.

“Those are serious infringements on a person,” he said.

This is not the first time the agency has come under fire for its treatment of some of the Sun Sea’s 492 migrants. Lawyers and refugee advocates have repeatedly complained about lengthy detentions and heavy-handed jail interviews.

But the government has said it has serious concerns about certain migrants, alleging that some are members of the banned Tamil Tigers terrorist organization or have been involved in people-smuggling or war crimes.

So far, two Sun Sea migrants have been ordered deported and about two dozen remain in detention.

Loren Balisky, director of Kinbrace House, which provides transitional housing to refugee claimants in Vancouver, said that in 13 years, he has not seen such scrutiny of a group of refugee claimants.

During one visit, CBSA officers questioned a family about a pile of mattresses in their apartment and asked who else was living there. Turns out Kinbrace had donated those mattresses to the family in advance of their move to a permanent home.

“It upset me they were coming in with a spirit of interrogation and suspicion,” Balisky said. “I think the family experienced it as invasive.”

A handful of migrants interviewed by Postmedia News over the past few weeks said that they are hardworking and eager to build new lives in Canada. One young woman said she’s been taking English classes and landed a job at a textile store. Her husband said he is seeking work as an electrician.

Another migrant said he now works as a mechanic.

However, the lengthy detentions and CBSA visits have soured his view of Canada a bit. Asked whether he would go through this again, he answered:

“Most probably not.”

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