Migrant workers seen as “security threats”

Posted by admin on Jun 23rd, 2007

CanWest, 23 June 2007
Charles Mandel

Eleven Sri Lankans who vanished from a Prince Edward Island mussel farm in the middle of the night may represent a security threat, Malpeque MP Wayne Easter warned Wednesday. “Everyone says they’ve done nothing illegal” Easter said in a phone interview from Ottawa. “Well, no, they haven’t. But I believe there is a certain risk to the country here.”

The 11 men arrived in early May on an eight-month temporary visa to work at Stewart Mussel Farms in Western P.E.I. For a month, they helped out on the mussel boats, working 50-hour weeks side-by-side with islanders. But in the middle of the night on June 8 the Sri Lankans abandoned everything except for the clothing they wore and jumped into two mini-van cabs bound for Ottawa. According to Easter, the men phoned the cab company two weeks in advance and made sure they had enough cash to pay them for the trip. “It was well planned,” Easter said.

Denis Morin, a spokesperson with the RCMP in P.E.I., would not comment as to whether the men are considered a security risk. A spokesperson for Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day could not be reached for comment, while a CSIS spokesperson said they would neither confirm or deny that they were keeping tabs on the 11 individuals.

But after Stephen Stewart reported the men missing, local RCMP brought dogs to the farm and checked for drugs and explosives. They told him they had concerns over terrorism because of the mens’ sudden disappearance in the middle of the night.

The men left behind their passports – which were locked in the farm office – clothing, CDs, movies, even photographs of their families. They also left Stewart and his wife, Julie, some $75,000 poorer. That’s the amount the Stewarts spent on return airfare for the men, purchasing a van to transport them to and from work, and on renovations to a house for the 11.

“It’s definitely a strange one, one that blind sided us,” Julie said on the phone from Baltic, 60 kilometres northwest of Charlottetown.

The Stewarts were in the process of training the men to help with the busy fall harvest, but the disappearance of their hired help has left the mussel farmers short-handed, not to mention surprised.

“We know bits and pieces,” Julie said. “What we were told through immigration is when most people leave, they go to Ottawa to claim refugee status, but we don’t have confirmation that they did that.”

Police stopped the vans west of Montreal while they were en route to Ottawa and questioned the men, but then let them go. The whereabouts of the 11 are unknown since then.

“We’re not necessarily aware of exactly where they are because currently there’d be no reason to require us to be aware of where they are,” said Jon Stone, a spokesperson for Citizenship and Immigration Canada.

But Stewart said he’s since heard that some of the men may be returning. “I don’t know what I’m going to do if they show up,” he added.

The Sri Lankans have broken no laws, but under the conditions of their visas cannot work for anyone else but Stewart Mussel Farms. Once their visas expire, they must return to their country of origin.

Easter is upset that the men could just up and vanish into the night and says the episode exposes glaring weaknesses in the temporary foreign worker program. Canada grants 90,000 workers visas annually.

“This clearly articulates a fairly serious shortcoming in a system that in fact does have an impact on our national security.”

Easter said any workers who break the terms of their work permits without cause should have their visas revoked. “The reality is, if you want to get into a country for terrorist purposes, then here’s a vehicle to do it.”

Before temporary foreign workers enter Canada, they are screened to determine if they are a security risk or if they might not comply with the requirements of their visa, Stone said. “As a result of that process, many temporary farm workers get refused.”

“Here we are this week putting no-fly lists in place, which will impact Canadians in every way, and yet we have this situation where you have 11 individuals doing whatever,” Easter said.

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