EDMONTON — After six weeks at sea on “a rusty old cargo ship,” Maran Nagarasa and 75 other refugees from Sri Lanka saw Canadian planes circling above them.
It was Oct. 16, 2009, “an unforgettable day in our lives.”
The men, who had set sail from Thailand on the boat without knowing where they were headed, were overjoyed that they were going to land in Canada. That night, “we all slept peacefully,” Nagarasa told a conference at The King’s University.
“When we awoke the next morning, people were boarding the ship and pointing guns at us,” he recalled in his Jan. 18 presentation.
The men were held at gunpoint all day before being arrested and taken into custody where they were held for four months. “We had no idea why we were in prison and when we would get out.”
Only when they viewed Canadian TV new channels while in prison did they learn they were being characterized as terrorists. They saw then-prime minister Stephen Harper and Jason Kenney, immigration minister at the time, standing on their ship, the Ocean Lady, “promising to protect Canadians from people like us.”
Ten months later, the MV Sun Sea, with 492 asylum seekers aboard, was intercepted off the coast of British Columbia. The two incidents led the government to amend the Immigration and Refugee Act in 2012 to give the immigration minister broad and unprecedented powers over the refugee system.
Nagarasa told his story at a two-day conference for students and the public marking Canada’s 150th anniversary, “Glorious and Free?! Generous Citizenship for the Next 150,” that was held at the Edmonton Christian university.
A journalist in his homeland who reported on the human rights abuses of “the inhuman Sinhalese government,” Nagarasa fled Sri Lanka when 10 fellow journalists were killed and threats were made against his family. More than 100,000 Tamils had been massacred in 2009 and 300,000 were displaced, he said.
Talking with other refugees in Thailand, he realized he had no hope of finding a permanent home if he went through the United Nations bureaucracy there. Like the other men, he paid the equivalent of about $40,000 for a ride on the Ocean Lady to an unknown country where they would be safe.
Nagarasa recounted the harsh conditions, times of despair and moments of joy during the ship’s long voyage.
“Although I know terrorists exist, there were none on that ship,” he said. All 76 men had witnessed horrible crimes committed by the Sri Lankan government.
“What was our crime? Our crime was that we wanted to live.”
Freed from prison after four months, he remained under house arrest with a friend in Toronto and had to report weekly to the Canadian Border Services. It was only last year, seven years after fleeing Sri Lanka, that he was permanently reunited with his wife and daughter.
That reunion took extensive work by Romero House, a Toronto agency that advocates for and provides housing to refugees.
Jennifer McIntyre, director of Romero House, said the agency focuses its attention on “inland refugee claimants,” those who arrive in Canada without having been granted refugee status. Navigating the Canadian system to win refugee status for such claimants is both difficult and confusing.
These claimants, McIntyre said, include Eritreans working in Saudi Arabia until about two years ago when the Saudis established new laws giving preferred employment status to their own citizens. If the Eritreans return to their homeland, they face mandatory military conscription.
Another refugee was a police detective who was persecuted for fighting corruption on the Juarez, Mexico, police force.
“The stories are many, and every story is unique,” she said.
Canada goes to great lengths to prevent undocumented refugees from entering the country. It sends border officials to airports around the world to ensure airlines do not allow people without proper documentation to come to Canada, McIntyre said. Airlines that fail to stop such refugees face hefty fines.
The government’s approach is “Welcome to Canada if we don’t stop you before you get here.”
The Tamils from Sri Lanka who arrived here in 2009 were treated abysmally and suffered from “unbelievable violations” of Canada’s privacy laws, she said.
Kenney challenged every court ruling in favour of the Tamil refugees, she noted. People who sought hope in Canada were “villainized and thrown into detention.”
Canadian refugee policy changed dramatically because of the two ships that bore Tamils to Canada. One’s status is now dependent on how one arrives in the country, she said. Sri Lankans arrive at Canadian airports daily without being challenged; for those who arrive by boat, it is a different matter.
As for Nagarasa, he believes an apology is in order. Other groups have received apologies from the Canadian government 100 years after they were treated unjustly. The Tamils shouldn’t have to wait that long.