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In a Bangkok apartment, Tamils wait for a ship to Canada Add to ...

The four men, Sri Lankan Tamils, say they are in Thailand on vacation, though they rarely venture outside their one-room apartment on the outskirts of the Thai capital. They sit together on the bed, endlessly watching old movies in English and Thai that they barely understand.

They have a standard answer when asked why they have come to Thailand. "Tourists. Arrived last week. Leaving next week," said a 25-year-old man named Baksubramaniam, who then claimed to speak no more English, though he seemed to understand the language well. In the same five-floor building on Bangkok's northern outskirts - far from the city's usual attractions - are two more rooms occupied by Tamils who call themselves tourists. One is a family of four, the other another group of men.

Those familiar with the workings of an alleged Tamil Tiger human-smuggling ring say the Tamils are in fact in transit. They are waiting for the next boat to take them to Canada, as the MV Sun Sea did for 492 Tamil asylum seekers who arrived in British Columbia via Thailand this month. And there are at least several dozen more Tamils waiting at other addresses visited by The Globe and Mail in and around Bangkok.

"The people who arranged the Sun Sea are arranging another boat now. I don't know how long it will be [before it's ready to depart]" said a well-known member of Bangkok's Tamil community who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Asked whether any of them hope to travel onwards to Canada, the waiting men whisper among themselves in Tamil before denying any interest in following those who recently passed through Thailand before boarding the MV Sun Sea for Canada. The Tamils smile widely at the mention of faraway Canada, but stick to their line that they're in Thailand as tourists.

A source gave The Globe and Mail a list of addresses where he said recently arrived Tamils were being warehoused before their departure for Canada. Recently arrived Tamils were living at several of them, while neighbours living near the other addresses said groups of Tamils had lived in the empty apartments until recently.

Records kept by management at the building where Baksubramaniam and the other "tourists" were staying add to the suggestion that they aren't in Bangkok to see the sights. Despite having no car, they stay almost an hour's drive from Bangkok's city centre, in an apartment block so close to the Thai capital's secondary Don Mueng airport that the building shakes as planes fly low overhead every few minutes.

The building's manager says the Tamils rarely leave their cramped rooms, which come equipped with a single bed, a small colour television and a fan.

Although they are in the country on two-week tourist visas, the Tamils signed nine-month leases on the three rooms at just over $100 per room per month. Two of the three Sri Lankan passports used as documentation for the leases were issued this year. Baksubramaniam's passport was issued in Colombo on July 15, barely three weeks before he was in Bangkok signing the lease.

Staff at the building say that it's actually a rotating cast of Tamils who use the apartments. "They don't stay here long. They come in groups of four or five, stay for a while, and then leave. Then another group comes," said Reangratana Peangkayai, who manages the building's books.

If the Tamils are indeed hoping to go to Canada, they'll be following a trail blazed by those who recently made the perilous 10-week journey across the Pacific Ocean aboard the Sun Sea. Thai police sources say the majority of those who transited through Thailand before boarding the Sun Sea - which left from the southern port city of Songkhla some time in April - were recent arrivals who entered the country on tourist visas shortly before the ship departed.

On May 1, Thai authorities made note of an estimated 120 Tamils who travelled in a caravan from Bangkok to a fishing hamlet near Songkhla before apparently boarding small craft that took them to a rendezvous with the Sun Sea in the Gulf of Thailand. Two and a half weeks later, another group of 40 Tamil tourists checked in en masse at a hotel in Songkhla before heading to the port the same night and boarding fishing boats that are again believed to have met the Sun Sea.

The entire operation is fuelled by enormous amounts of money. Those left behind in Thailand are often legitimate asylum-seekers who admit they'd love to go to Canada but don't have the requisite cash.

"I would like to go to Canada like the others, but it's expensive," said Suhumar, a 23-year-old who fled the final stages of Sri Lanka's civil war 16 months ago after his father disappeared and he was briefly jailed.

Suhumar, who is officially registered in Bangkok with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, said agents operating in the Thai capital and offering safe passage to Canada are charging tens of thousands of dollars. "How," he said, "can an ordinary refugee afford this?"

Follow on Twitter: @markmackinnon

 

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