Out of the line of fire

Posted by admin on Jan 28th, 2011

By Monisha Martins, Maple Ridge News, January 28, 2011

As the federal government looks to toughen rules on human smuggling and illegal migration, a family who fled from Sri Lanka to Canada on a ship called the MV Sun Sea puts a face on those behind the figures. Their names have been changed to protect their identities.

Thivia’s mother-in-law was killed while steeping a cup of tea. She had climbed out of their underground bunker when the sky was quiet, sneaking into the kitchen above to make a strong Sri Lankan brew.

There wasn’t much the family below could do when they heard planes rumbling above.

The bomb crashed through the roof. Thivia found her mother-in-law lying in blood, not yet dead, a hole in her side.

Stoic, unflinching, the young mother shrugs.

Her mother-in-law was buried near the paddy fields they farmed under the coconut trees that shaded her home and village in the Vanni. There was no time to cremate her according to Hindu traditions.

During the last five months of their 30-year civil war, Sri Lankan government and security forces encouraged hundreds of thousands of civilians to move into ever smaller government-declared No Fire Zones in the country’s north, then subjected them to repeated and increasingly intense artillery, mortar barrages and other fire.

And it isn’t just the government who is accused of violating international humanitarian law, says the International Crisis Group.

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, fighting to create an independent state in the north of the island country, were responsible for killing, wounding or endangering civilians, by shooting them and preventing them from leaving the conflict zone even when injured and dying.

The International Crisis Group believes that tens of thousands of non-combatant Tamil men, women, children and the elderly were killed in the final five months of the war – from January to May 2009.

The United Nations is more conservative with their estimates and figures the conflict had killed between 80,000-100,000 people since it erupted into a full-scale civil war in 1983 – including unofficial and unverified tallies showing 7,000 civilian deaths since January 2009.

Thivia’s husband Kapilan buried his friend, split in three by a bomb, on a sandy beach. He watched the friend’s young son cover his father with palm fronds to shield the body from the sun.

It was then he made the decision to leave, flee far from all that was familiar, find peace.

The bombing may have ended, but surrounded by the army, Kapilan says, his family did not feel safe. As a Tamil, he admits, he was protected when the Tigers ran Vanni.

Before the family left, they dug a hole behind their home where they hid their photographs.

Thivia and their two children arrived in Bangkok in October 2009 carrying all the gold jewelry she owned – her wedding ring, family heirlooms, keepsakes from childhood. She never told her mother she was leaving.

Kapilan joined her a 18 days later, after bribing officials at the airport in Columbo who pulled him aside before he could board the plane with his family.

In Thailand, where they spent six months on a tourist visa, the family sold their gold for passage on MV Sun Sea – four places for $15,000, a sum collected thanks to the high price of gold.

“I wanted to be safe,” he says, through a translator.

“I wanted freedom.”


The rusty 59-metre 767 ton cargo ship took three months to reach Victoria.

The Sun Sea was well-stocked, captained by a man the passengers had nominated to guide the ship. The man had worked as a second-mate on an Eritrean cargo ship, he could read navigation charts and assured them – he would get them safely to Canada.

Kapilan calls him “a hero.”

Their daily ration on the ship included a litre of drinking water, dried fish and rice for lunch and porridge for dinner.

When the sea was calm, Thivia and the children would stroll the decks. Everyone would move below deck when the skies turned grey and waves whipped around them. Passengers were often sea-sick.

Below deck, Thivia kept track of the days. She figured the ship must be close to Canada when rations began to run low.

On Aug. 12, the MV Sun Sea was intercepted by the Canadian Navy.

Thivia says everyone ran to the deck and cheered when they saw the Maple Leaf.

The ship was escorted into CFB Esquimalt the next morning, a total of 492 people on board.

All have claimed refugee status.

To date, 307 of the MV Sun Sea passengers have been released, including Thivia and Kapilan, who each spent time in provincial prisons while the Canadian Border Services Agency tried to determine their identities and whether they were human smugglers or former Tamil Tiger rebels.

Of 136 who remain detained, 124 are men who are housed in Fraser Regional Correctional Centre and 12 are women who are being held inside the Alouette Correctional Centre for Women, two prisons in Maple Ridge.

“The CBSA continues to exercise due diligence in the screening of all irregular migrants for both security and criminal threats,” said spokesperson Shakila Manzoor.

“The CBSA is committed to working with its partners to maintain the integrity of Canada’s immigration system and will exercise due diligence in processing these individuals according to Canadian law. The safety and security of Canadians remains the CBSA’s priority.”

Thus far, 15 of the men have been referred to the Immigration and Refugee Board for admissibility hearings

Melissa Anderson, a spokesperson for the refugee board, said 14 of the 15 men are accused of being a member of a terrorist organization.

The border agency also alleges two of the 14 took part in human smuggling, while another is being accused of war crimes.


The arrival of the MV Sun Sea and an earlier ship in 2009 that also carried Tamils triggered a sharp response from the federal government, which promised to crack down on human smuggling and illegal migration.

As a result, last fall the Conservative government introduced Bill C-49 to toughen rules. Those include mandatory jail terms for those involved in human smuggling, detention for up to year while their status is being determined and making those who arrive by a smuggling operation wait five years before they can apply for permanent residency in Canada.

Rick Dykstra, who spoke in Maple Ridge earlier this month, the government has several reasons for the bill: to provide fairness to people waiting in camps around the world who’ve already been declared refugees; and to prevent more boats from arriving in Canada.

“We felt it was challenging the integrity of our immigration process, so we had to respond to that,” added Dykstra, parliamentary secretary to Citizenship Minister Jason Kenney.

“We need to take a look at the whole immigration system and perhaps put a moratorium on some of the groups that are using the system.”

The Conservatives need 143 votes to pass the bill, which has only had first reading.

Opposition parties are not eager to give it support.

The Liberals maintain that the mandatory detention provisions violate Sections 9 and 10 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and Article 31 of the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. They also say a five-year refugee probationary period, denial of family reunification and of travel documents also likely violate both the Geneva Convention and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

The LTTE, which resorted to suicide bombers and child soldiers, is listed as a foreign terrorist organization in Canada.

Sri Lanka map


The Sri Lankan government says peace now prevails across the country and cites the return of refugees from India to Sri Lanka, as well as the return of many who were housed in displacement camps as evidence of a war that has ended.

As of July, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees no longer considers Tamils as “presumptively eligible” for refugee protection.

“We do not accept that there is validity in their claims,” says Chitranganee Wagiswara, the Ottawa-based high commissioner for Sri Lanka.

“The Tamil Tigers were defeated in May 2009. Since then, there is total peace in the country. There hasn’t been a single bomb going off or shooting.”

While there may be no bombs dropping or artillery barrages, Tamils claim that systematic discrimination, intimidation and disappearances are still a reality in the north.

The Sri Lankan government, dominated by the country’s Sinhalese majority, has dismissed such claims and points to the creation of a “Commission on Lessons Learned and Reconciliation” as a tool that’s sparking healing.

Wagiswara stresses that “systematic disappearances” don’t happen in Sri Lanka.

“Some of these facts are exaggerated,” she says.

Last year, the United Nations appointed a panel to investigate abuses on both sides of the conflict in Sri Lanka, but it has been prevented from entering the country.

Wagiswara explains the panel is free to make presentations to the government-appointed commission, but it will not be allowed to interview civilians, combatants or investigate allegations of war crimes.

“We do not want them to visit Sri Lanka because we thinks it’s unnecessary,” says Wagiswara.

“It has been hearing witnesses for near a year now. It’s a domestic issue. We would consider [a United Nations investigation] as interference in a sovereign country.”

The Sri Lankan government points out an increase in tourists from the south visiting the north as a sign that ethic tensions are mending.

“The government is helping them,” Wagiswara added. “It’s starting with people to people contact.”

For Sam Nalliah, who left his home more than 30 years ago and has never returned, the government’s efforts ring shallow.

Although he left to study in England and Canada well before the civil war started, his work with the Canadian Tamil Congress has brought him in contact with women with tales of rapes and men scarred by torture.

“Nothing will change until the government realizes we are all equal,” Nalliah says.

“Winning a war and enslaving a race is easy, but winning the trust and hearts of enslaved will be challenging. I hope the current president of Sri Lanka will build a genuine bridge with Tamils and restore a lasting peace and tranquility to the war-torn country.”

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