Suren Karththikesu remembers the cheers when migrants on board the MV Sun Sea first spotted the Canadian flag. The 492 Sri Lankan Tamils had been at sea for three months, on a dangerous voyage across the Pacific Ocean. The flag, hung from a navy vessel that would help escort the Sun Sea to the British Columbia shore five years ago this week, offered the passengers new lives away from the civil war that had ravaged their home country.
Like migrants in northern France attempting to jump on trucks or trains to Britain, or others trying to make it across the Mediterranean, the passengers on board the Sun Sea faced immense risk. But, refugee advocates say, Canada was about to undergo a dramatic shift in its treatment of asylum-seekers. They suggest the federal government's response to the Sun Sea marked a transition that has tarnished Canada's reputation as a leader in refugee protection.
Before the Sun Sea had even arrived, the Canada Border Services Agency was planning a "more aggressive approach" than it had with another migrant vessel the previous year "to create a deterrent for future arrivals," according to an internal document. Many of the Sun Sea passengers were held in custody for months. But, for all the worries that the migrants were somehow illegitimate or "bogus" refugees, of those who have had their cases decided, nearly two-thirds were approved as refugees.
The Conservative government says its measures after the ship's arrival – including the passage of a human-smuggling bill – have been "an overwhelming success." Jason Kenney, who was immigration minister when the Sun Sea arrived, says Canada could not sit idly by while migrants risked their lives to get here.
Mr. Kenney, now the Minister of National Defence as well as Minister for Multiculturalism, says claims that Canada has lost its international standing on refugee protection are "unmitigated rubbish."
No migrant ships have arrived in this country since the Sun Sea.
Several cases involving refugee policy have made their way to the courts in recent years, with the Supreme Court of Canada expected to rule soon on what constitutes human smuggling.
Mr. Karththikesu has just finished a restaurant shift and sits at a friend's home in the suburb of Burnaby. He's not unused to interviews – he was a journalist in Sri Lanka, and therein lies the problem.
Mr. Karththikesu worked as a reporter and photographer for a newspaper that Canadian officials have argued was linked to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) – which lost the Sri Lankan civil war in 2009 and has been banned in Canada as a terrorist group. Mr. Karththikesu has denied the publication was run by the LTTE or that he was a member.
Gabriel Chand, Mr. Karththikesu's lawyer, in a separate interview said his client supported the Tamil people, not the LTTE, by writing about the poor conditions they were suffering through. Mr. Karththikesu was badly injured in a government shell attack while reporting in 2009 and Mr. Chand said he "should be a hero."
An October, 2012 letter by Reporters Without Borders said Mr. Karththikesu was a "dedicated" journalist who helped shed light on a humanitarian disaster in areas that were inaccessible for international media. The organization said he should be granted asylum. An April, 2012, letter by Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka recommended the same, and described the situation for Tamil journalists – who could be subjected to harassment or physical violence – as dangerous.
Mr. Karththikesu said he was held in custody for about six months after he arrived in Canada. But, at a hearing to determine if he was admissible to the country long term, the government ultimately succeeded in its claim that he was a member of the LTTE. He was ordered deported in 2013.
Mr. Karththikesu, despite being deemed inadmissible, has applied to remain in the country on the grounds that his presence is not detrimental to the national interest. He has not yet received a response. Mr. Chand said such applications can long go unanswered – he has a client who filed one in 1994 and has still not heard back.
For now, Mr. Karththikesu lives in a state of limbo. He was surprised he had to spend any time behind bars for fleeing a dangerous situation back home. He believes he will be killed if he is returned to Sri Lanka.
"I'm living in a bright place under a shadow," he said through a translator.
Of the 364 Sun Sea passengers whose refugee claims had been decided by July 22 of this year, the Immigration and Refugee Board said 228 people had been accepted, a rate of 63 per cent.
Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees, recently published a report on the Sun Sea's five-year anniversary and said its arrival was a turning point in Canada's treatment of asylum-seekers. She said the passengers suffered through detention, prolonged family separation and public condemnation.
Ms. Dench said suggestions the migrants were illegitimate refugees, or criminals, were deeply troubling. For instance, on Aug. 12, 2010, when Canadian authorities first boarded the Sun Sea, then-public safety minister Vic Toews said "a vessel carrying 490 individuals claiming refugee status – including suspected human smugglers and terrorists – has entered our waters."
Ms. Dench called the legislation that was passed in the ship's wake "draconian." The bill gave the public safety minister the power to designate certain groups of migrants "irregular arrivals," making detention mandatory. Detention reviews for irregular arrivals occur within the first 14 days, and then every six months. People deemed to be irregular arrivals cannot apply for permanent residence for five years and are prevented from sponsoring family members during that time.
Mr. Kenney, in an interview, said the Conservative government vowed during the past election campaign to crack down on human smuggling and kept its word. He said Canadian officials have prevented other ships from heading here, helping break up specific operations in Southeast Asia and West Africa.
"One thing we know, observing the Mediterranean and the smuggling operations that targeted Australia in the recent past, is that marine smuggling kills people. It kills thousands of people around the world every year. And I think countries like Canada have a moral imperative to take every reasonable measure to break the smuggling syndicates and prevent marine smuggling, in order to keep people safe," he said.
Mr. Kenney said if people need protection from their countries of origin there are international procedures they can follow. He said such individuals can attempt to travel to neighbouring countries and seek protection from the United Nations Refugee Agency.
The minister called Canada a world leader in refugee protection. Citizenship and Immigration Canada says of about 100,000 refugees who are resettled worldwide each year, 10,000 arrive in this country. Resettled refugees are individuals who have fled their home country for a temporary second country, before being approved for acceptance into a third. Refugee advocates have said the process can take too long and be expensive. The United Nations Refugee Agency has said less than one per cent of refugees worldwide are even submitted for resettlement.
Mr. Kenney, when asked about the fact nearly two-thirds of Sun Sea refugee claims had been approved, said the government "never denied that there could be bona fide refugees" on board and always intended to give them access to the refugee determination system.
Efrat Arbel, an assistant professor at the University of British Columbia's Allard School of Law and an executive member of the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers, said Canada could be doing more to combat the worldwide refugee crisis. She said there is a higher level of global displacement today than after the Second World War. The United Nations Refugee Agency has said 59.5 million people were forcibly displaced by the end of 2014 due to persecution, conflict, violence or human-rights violations – an increase of more than eight million people from the previous year.
Immigration Minister Chris Alexander announced in January that Canada would accept another 10,000 Syrian refugees over three years and 3,000 more Iraqi refugees in 2015. A Citizenship and Immigration Canada spokesperson said data on how many of those people have been resettled are not publicly available. The spokesperson said Canada has met its initial commitment to resettle 1,300 Syrian refugees, and has resettled more than 21,100 Iraqi refugees since 2009.
The Federal Court last month ruled against part of the Conservative government's refugee system overhaul. It said denying applicants from certain countries the right to appeal when their claims are rejected violated the Charter. The Federal Court earlier ruled against the government's attempt to cut health-care services for refugee claimants.
The Supreme Court of Canada heard arguments in February on whether the definition of human smuggling in the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act is too broad. It is expected to rule soon, and its judgment could impact the criminal case involving the Sun Sea.
Six people have each been charged with one count of human smuggling. The Public Prosecution Service said the jury trial is scheduled to start in January in Vancouver. Four of the men were released on bail and one remains in custody. The sixth is in France.
A B.C. spokesman with the Canadian Tamil Congress said it does not believe the people who helped the migrants flee a dangerous situation should be punished.
Mary Kunarobinson, whose husband is the only Sun Sea passenger to have remained in custody ever since the ship arrived, wept during an interview as she described how difficult her life has been.
Ms. Kunarobinson said her daughter, who was born months after the ship landed, constantly asks when her father will come home.
When asked if it felt as though it had been five years since the Sun Sea docked in Canada, Ms. Kunarobinson, through a translator, said, "It almost feels like a century."