Identities of would-be migrants from detained boat still not revealed

VANCOUVER, B.C. - The possibility that a boatload of illegal migrants intercepted off Canada's West Coast are Tamils from war-torn Sri Lanka could create a dilemma for the government and Canada's large Tamil expatriate population.

VANCOUVER, B.C. - The possibility that a boatload of illegal migrants intercepted off Canada's West Coast are Tamils from war-torn Sri Lanka could create a dilemma for the government and Canada's large Tamil expatriate population.

Canada Border Services Agency so far has not confirmed the origin of the 76 men found aboard the Ocean Lady, a small freighter escorted into Victoria by RCMP and navy vessels on the weekend.

Officials for the Canadian Tamil Congress say they believe the men are Tamils fleeing what they say is continued persecution five months after a decades-long civil war ended on the small island nation.

"These guys have no choice but to get out of there," said Roy Ratnavel, a Vancouver spokesman for the organization.

The ship's passengers and crew now are sitting in a Vancouver-area jail, awaiting detention hearings before the Immigration and Refugee Board, likely later this week.

Duty counsel for the B.C. Legal Services Society were available to the men.

It's not known yet if any have made refugee claims.

Vancouver lawyer Douglas Cannon, a veteran of the refugee process, said their situation could become complicated if any are found to have been members of the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the so-called Tamil Tigers.

The Tigers' use of suicide bombers and other tactics against the country's Sinhalese majority put them on Canada's list of banned terrorist organizations.

"If they really are Tamils and some terrorists end up in their midst, then that's a big problem," Cannon said in an interview. "Those are the most highly complicated cases."

Proven membership in the Tigers, who had a reputation for extorting money from Tamils living in Canada, would automatically bar them from making a refugee claim, he said.

"But that doesn't mean they get deported," said Cannon.

Rejected claimants can request a pre-removal risk assessment if they believe deportation would result in their being imprisoned, tortured or killed.

Top officials in the Department of Citizenship and Immigration would have to balance that risk against the potential problems for Canadian society if they're allowed to stay, said Cannon.

The Sri Lankan armed forces crushed the Tigers in the war's bloody climax in Tamil Nadu last May.

The ferocity of the war's final days led to some criticism from Ottawa, which chilled relations between the two countries.

Upwards of 200,000 Tamils remain in a vast internment camp, ostensibly so the military can clear the area of land mines and weapons caches.

But Ratnavel said despite pledges of reconciliation and reconstruction, the Sinhalese-dominated government continues to oppress the Tamils.

"The end of the war has brought another type of persecution," he said.

"The reality is the Tamils are treated like second-class citizens and that fact hasn't changed."

Sarath Bandara, a Sri Lankan-Canadian of Sinhalese origin, said he sees no reason to leave the country now.

"People are mostly at peace," said Bandara, also president of the Sri Lankan Friendship Association of B.C.

The Sri Lankan government wants to rehabilitate former Tiger foot soldiers, he said.

"These are just people who were brainwashed into fighting," he said. "They are just soldiers, so they will be treated as soldiers and try to rehabilitate them into something."

But Ratnavel said Tamil men between the ages of 15 to 45, like those on the boat, are the most at risk.

"If they are sent back there's a very good chance they will be put in jail and tortured or killed," he said.

Given the Tigers' military defeat, "it would not be wrong to think that those guys formerly holding arms are scattering away from the country right now," said Cannon.

But Tigers would be the exceptions, he added.

"The typical refugee claimant that comes to Canada is a person that's caught in the middle, who's afraid of the Tigers and of the Sri Lankan government," said Cannon.

"I'm certain that CSIS is all over this, as are the most intelligent people within the Canada Border Services Agency who know all about Sri Lanka and have for years. So it's going to be pretty hard for people to slip through undetected, frankly."

 
 
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