One of them just got out of prison. Another spends his days studying English, his nights working at a gas station. A third makes pizza but dreams of some day becoming a nurse.
The three Sri Lankan Tamil migrants, two men and a woman, spoke with The Globe and Mail to mark the first anniversary of their arrival in Canada onboard the MV Sun Sea.
They agreed the last year was not easy. All three spent months in custody and were demonized as illegitimate refugee claimants, their plight turning into a federal election issue. But asked if it was worth it, if they’d do it all again, the answer was a unanimous, unwavering “Yes.”
“If I was in Sri Lanka, my family would be marking the anniversary of my death,” one of the men, a mechanic, said through an interpreter.
The migrants asked not to be identified out of concern for relatives abroad.
When he arrived in Canada, the mechanic had his new life all planned out. Once the ship docked, he would file his refugee claim and improve his job prospects by taking a language class. Failure was not an option – not with family in Sri Lanka still reeling from the decades-long civil war.
He expected to be detained by Canadian officials for a couple of days; he could deal with that. But then came an accusation that he was involved in a suicide bombing. All he could do was weep.
One by one, the mechanic watched other men leave the jail. He wondered when his day would come. It turned out to be last week, when the Immigration and Refugee Board ruled the case against him wasn’t credible and ordered his release after nearly 12 months detention.
It would be easy for him to be bitter about the experience. But during an interview at his lawyer’s Vancouver office, he showed no signs of anger. In fact, with a move to Quebec in the near future, he likened himself to a bird who had its wings clipped and only recently regained the ability to fly.
One of the other migrants, a former journalist who spent eight months at Fraser Regional Correctional Centre, was not as forgiving about his experience. He was locked up after the Canada Border Services Agency argued some of his articles were sympathetic to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a terrorist organization banned in Canada. The Tamil Tigers lost the Sri Lankan civil war in 2009.
Sri Lankan officials have said there is no persecution of minorities within the country’s borders, a claim Tamils have disputed.
Although his English is a work in progress, the journalist said he’s aware how big a political issue the MV Sun Sea has become. During the federal election campaign, he said he saw advertisements from Stephen Harper’s Conservatives that portrayed people on board the ship as criminals. Those claims saddened him. “Canada’s well known for being a compassionate country,” he said through an interpreter.
In June, the Conservative Party reintroduced Bill C-4, or the Preventing Human Smugglers from Abusing Canada’s Immigration System Act. It would establish mandatory detention for “irregular” mass arrivals. The bill would also prevent such migrants from obtaining permanent resident status for five years and, the Conservatives say, make it easier to prosecute human smugglers. Critics have called the bill unconstitutional and vowed a legal challenge.
Six of the 492 MV Sun Sea passengers remain in custody. Seven have been ordered deported.
The journalist said rather than implementing Bill C-4, Canadian officials should find a way to help Tamils in Sri Lanka directly. Reducing persecution, he said, would reduce the need for Tamils to flee.
He recounted one instance in which a member of the Sri Lankan army walked into his newspaper’s office and shot someone who had written an article critical of the government.
He described the shock he felt when he was handcuffed by Canadian border guards, and the fear the first time he was placed in a room with non-migrant prison inmates. He worried one of the men with shaved heads and tattoos would attack him.
The journalist now works an evening shift at a Vancouver-area gas station while he brushes up on his English, hoping to continue his journalism career in Canada.
The third migrant who spoke with The Globe was just a high-school student when she boarded the MV Sun Sea. She recently completed her ESL course, though she was unsure of her word choice during parts of the interview and deferred to the interpreter.
She spent three months at Alouette Correctional Centre for women before she was released. She works at a pizza place but hopes to become a nurse.
When she was in Sri Lanka, the woman said she was in constant fear she would be raped or killed. Now she lives near a park and goes for walks without concern.
She appears better-adjusted to Canadian life than the two men – partly because she was released from detention so much earlier. During the Vancouver Canucks’ run to the Stanley Cup final, she was glued to the TV. With a sense of pride, she says her favourite players on the hometown team are the superstar Sedin twins.
She mentions the financial hardship she’s faced since starting her life in Canada, but doesn’t dwell on it. It’s a fleeting concern, she insists, because like the other migrants she’s glad to be here.