Tamil boat refugees: One woman’s story

Posted by admin on Dec 23rd, 2010

By Douglas Quan, Postmedia News, December 23, 2010

The Harper government calls the shadowy individuals who helped smuggle 492 Tamil migrants to Canada aboard a cargo ship this summer “criminals” and “ruthless profiteers.” But one of the migrants who took that perilous three-month voyage with her two children considers them “saviours.”

“I’m not scared for my life or my [children’s] lives,” the mother said through a translator, in a rare interview. “I’ve got peace of mind.”

The mother was released from detention a month ago but still faces an uncertain future. She agreed to talk to Postmedia News on the condition that her name and other identifying details not be revealed because of her pending refugee claim and because of safety concerns for her family in war-ravaged Sri Lanka.

Her comments come at the end of a year that saw Tory cabinet ministers vow to crack down on human smugglers and “queue jumpers” after the MV Sun Sea lurched to shore in August.

But refugee advocates say the government’s proposed legislation could end up hurting “genuine” asylum-seekers and tarnish Canada’s reputation as a country that welcomes immigrants.

“You can’t [paint] everyone as a terrorist or a snake-head,” said Sam Nalliah, a Tamil-Canadian in Burnaby, who with his wife, Angela, has been helping many of the Sun Sea migrants settle into Canada.

Sitting a little apprehensively on a couch in the Nalliahs’ living room, the soft-spoken Tamil mother — sporting blue jeans, a black pullover and sparkly earrings — explained that life back home was like “walking on pins.”

She said she couldn’t walk around without being harassed by a soldier.

Farmland once owned by her family was seized by the government because it was too close to an army camp, she said.

Refugee advocacy groups have said that even though a bloody civil war ended last year between the independence-seeking Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan government, persecution of the Tamil minority continues.

The woman packed four sets of clothes for each of her children and three sets for herself. They flew to Thailand and waited for six months before boarding the Sun Sea.

Public Safety Minister Vic Toews has said that passengers paid about $40,000 each for their journey. The mother said her family got a good deal.

Life in the bowels of the vessel was crammed and “tense,” she said. They got by on rice and dried fish for lunch and porridge for dinner.

The men slept separately from the women and children. They shared one toilet. The migrants rarely ventured outside for fear of being spotted by authorities. “I hardly saw the ocean for three months,” she said.

The only time they did go outside was to collect rainwater. They used tent canvas to collect the water and then used cloth to filter out the black soot from the ship’s exhaust.

The mother said the biggest shock after arriving in Canada was being held in custody for three months.

A government representative wanted to keep her detained because her identity had still not been authenticated. But last month she was freed after an Immigration and Refugee Board adjudicator “found that there was an established system to house MV Sun Sea women with children at facilities in Vancouver, and that this woman and her children could do that as an alternative to detention while the [public safety] minister continued its investigation,” said board spokeswoman Melissa Anderson.

About 225 out of the 380 men and about 57 out of the 63 women have been ordered released, said Anderson. However, many of those releases have been stayed because the government has appealed them in Federal Court. The remaining 49 were children, who were not detained but remained with their detained parents.

While identity verification has been the most common reason the government has sought to keep migrants detained, some are accused of committing war crimes or of having ties to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam — or Tamil Tigers — a group that was added to Canada’s list of banned organizations in 2006. During one detention hearing this week, a female migrant was ordered to remain in detention after a Canada Border Services Agency representative alleged that a piece of jewelry linked her to the Tamil Tigers.

© Copyright (c) The Vancouver Sun

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