Canadian authorities are currently investigating hundreds of Sri Lankan refugees who arrived on a cargo ship in Canada on Friday, after the Sri Lankan government claimed the vessel was full of human traffickers and Tamil Tiger rebels. The claim has been denied by Tamil organisations in Canada, which have urged the Canadian government to grant these refugees asylum.
by Johan van Slooten
Almost 500 Sri Lankan asylum seekers – mainly Tamils – originally planned to travel to Australia, but their ship was denied entry into that country. It then set sail for Canada, which is known for its open asylum policy.
Canada’s Public Safety minister Vic Toews told reporters that authorities first wanted to investigate the claims from the Sri Lankan government. Some Tamil refugees may have been soldiers who have carried out war crimes during the war between Tamils and Sri Lanka’s government army, which ended in 2009.
The screening will take a few weeks, Mr Toews said.
Although the war is now officially over, many Tamil civilians and former soldiers still live in refugee camps in the northeastern Tamil area in Sri Lanka. Some Tamils manage to escape the country.
Hell and high waters
But their journey to freedom comes with a price - they often have to pay tens of thousands of dollars to human traffickers to help them get overseas. “They have to go through some very non-conventional ways”, Krisna Saravanamuttu of Canada’s National Council of Canadian Tamils (NCCT) told RNW. “It’s a very hazardous undertaking. As somebody who has never lived on the island itself, I can only imagine the hell and high waters that these people may have had to go through to to escape Sri Lanka”.
Canada has one of the world’s most welcoming asylum policies, which may have been the main reason why the Thai-flagged ship sailed to this country after it had been sent away from Australia last month. In October 2009, almost 80 Tamil refugees arrived in Canada in a similar fashion. They were all granted asylum after claims that they were Tamil terrorists were found to be untrue.
The steady stream of Tamil refugees coming into Canada (the country has already granted asylum to tens of thousands of them) has raised questions on whether its moderate asylum policies should be tightened up. But Mr Saravanamuttu disagrees.
“These people are fleeing a war-torn country, they’re fleeing for their lives. Canada has a noble reputation for having its arms open to those who are truly in need of refuge. There are misconceptions, but if we look at where these misconceptions come from, they’re often from the Sri Lankan government itself. Anything that this government says should be taken with a grain of salt”.
Women and children
Living conditions on board the ship were very demanding, Mr Saravanamuttu says. “There were many women and children on this ship, many of the children were younger than 13. We can only imagine the psychological trauma they’re suffering from. It’s a situation no child should go through”.
Tents and jails
The refugees are currently housed in tents at a naval base on Vancouver Island and in empty jails elsewhere in the region. Some of them have been taken to hospitals. Authorities say human traffickers and Tamil terrorists will be prosecuted, while other refugees will follow the usual route in Canada’s asylum process.
The NCCT expects most of these people to be granted asylum. “We will offer them legal and humanitarian assistance to assure them these people will have a healthy integration into Candadian society”, Mr Saravanamuttu says.
Photo by flickr.com (Ricardipus)