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A private security guard escorts Sri Lankan migrants from a detention hearing at the Immigration and Refugee Board in Vancouver, B.C., on Oct. 26, 2009. (DARRYL DYCK)
A private security guard escorts Sri Lankan migrants from a detention hearing at the Immigration and Refugee Board in Vancouver, B.C., on Oct. 26, 2009. (DARRYL DYCK)

Tamil migrant routinely threatened in homeland, he reports Add to ...

He was an educated, medical professional helping to rebuild his country, which was devastated by poverty, war and a catastrophic tsunami. But he was also routinely threatened - by both government officials and rebel separatists - who tried to pressure him to give aid money to those who didn't need it.

Once, his house was ransacked. Later, he was unlawfully arrested, yanked off a Colombo street in broad daylight by uniformed men.

The man, who can't be identified because of a publication ban imposed by the Immigration and Refugee Board, finally had enough. He was among 76 young Tamils who paid smugglers to take them to Canada on a decrepit freighter in October.

On Monday, he was ordered released from custody, the 30th person to be ordered out of detention since the drama began.

The 32-year-old man spoke to The Globe and Mail just a few minutes after the hearing.

He smiled when told he would soon be free. Like most of the recently released migrants, he plans to fly to Toronto, home to one of the world's largest Tamil communities.

Speaking fluent English, he described the gruelling 42-day high-seas journey and talked of the deteriorating living conditions in his homeland. He also described his dismay at arriving in Canada only to be branded a potential terrorist and jailed for nearly three months.

When asked what drove a successful, professional to leave his family and country to board a dangerous boat, the man replied: "I had no choice but to go. Otherwise I would die in my country."

Leaving Sri Lanka, he said, was one of the hardest things he'd done. "I am a qualified person," he said. "I had a good job, good wages."

Fleeing by boat was the only option for escape, he said. Catching a plane to a country like Canada would require a visa and a visit to the Canadian consul. After his unlawful arrest in Colombo, he said he didn't want to risk heading back to the capital.

The migrant said he worked for years for one of the world's best-known aid organizations, granting contracts for development projects. (The aid group can't be named, nor can his profession, to protect his identity. At one of his detention hearings, his lawyer read aloud a letter from a Western diplomat that expressed fears for his safety after he was incarcerated in Colombo.) But the migrant said his work was constantly undermined by corrupt government officials and dangerous rebel groups, in particular, members of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

Canada considers that group a terrorist organization. And for that reason, Canadian officials took an aggressive tack with these Tamil migrants, demanding they be incarcerated while the government probed for links to terrorism.

The Tamil Tigers were responsible for suicide bombings and other violent acts during a 25-year civil war with the government of Sri Lanka. That conflict ended earlier this year when the government defeated the separatists. Since then, security experts, including one who is advising the Canadian government on this Tamil issue, have warned that the defeated Tigers plan to reorganize and regroup in Canada.

All of the 76 migrants have made refugee claims, but Canadian officials believe some of them have links to terrorism. In fact, they have brought out a rarely used section of the Immigration Refugee and Protection Act, which allows them to go behind closed doors to introduce secret evidence at detention review hearings.

However, the migrant speaking yesterday said he had no ties to the Tigers and wasn't particularly political.

He said his job was to dispense large amounts of aid money to needy groups in the regions hit hard by the 2004 tsunami.

Once, while in Colombo for a meeting, he was grabbed on the street and jailed overnight. He said Western diplomats with whom he had previously worked, helped to negotiate his release.

Last fall, he said he boarded a small fishing boat, which ferried him to the Princess Easwary. The 42-day trip was stormy and the migrants had only rice and noodles to eat. He said he had little contact with the crew.

He brought stacks of documents and letters of recommendation, and believed his entry to Canada would be relatively painless.

Instead, he and the others were arrested and taken to a Vancouver-area detention centre. "It was upsetting," he said. "I was shocked," he said. "We didn't have our freedom."

The man will likely be released in a couple of days and he must report authorities on a regular basis. He intends to move to Toronto for now, but would like to return to British Columbia to pursue an academic degree.

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