Not any more

Harper mulls law change to prevent boats of asylum-seekers

In Canada on August 17, 2010 at 21:02

MISSISSAUGA, Ont. — Ottawa "will not hesitate to strengthen the laws" in order to tackle the "trend" of would-be refugees arriving in Canada via people-smuggling ships, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Tuesday afternoon.

"Let me be clear. We are a land of refuge, but at the same time, I think Canadians are pretty concerned when a whole boat of people comes — not through any normal application process, not through any normal arrival channel — and just simply lands," Harper said at an event in Mississauga, Ont.

"We will not hesitate to strengthen the laws if we have to because ultimately — as a government, as a fundamental exercise of our sovereignty — we are responsible for the security of our borders."

It was the first time the prime minister had spoken on the issue of human-smuggling and seaborne asylum-seekers since the arrival in British Columbia last week of the MV Sun Sea — a Thai cargo ship that carried about 492 Tamils from Sri Lanka who are seeking refugee status in Canada.

Authorities are concerned that some of the migrants might be members of the Tamil Tigers, a terrorist group outlawed in Canada.

Meanwhile, the first migrant to appear before immigration authorities has been ordered to remain in detention until the government can confirm she is who she says she is.

Lawyer Ron Yamauchi for the Canada Border Service Agency said extra enforcement officers have been hired to help with the investigation of the identities of all the migrants.

The woman’s lawyer, Eric Purtzki, said she arrived in Canada with an original copy of her national identity card and birth certificate.

She has, like all the adult migrants, undergone a short interview with border officials, but that process is not yet complete.

Purtzki said she arrived on the ship with her mother, father and brother. The family has relatives in Toronto.

She is scheduled to return before the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada next week when she is expected to make another appeal for release.

Earlier Tuesday, IRB officials announced that Canadian media will be allowed into the woman’s detention review.

Media access to the reviews for other asylum seekers will be decided on a case-by-case basis.

The detention reviews, which are supposed to be held within 48 hours of detention but were delayed in this case due to the high number of arrivals, are typically closed to the public unless a special request is made.

However, Leeann King, an adjudicator with the board, ruled that reviews — which determine whether someone should or should not stay in custody — will remain closed to two Tamil advocacy groups, the Canadian Tamil Congress and the Transnational Government of Tamil Eelam. The Canadian media will be prohibited from publishing the names of those on board.

Whether a review will be open to the media "will be still have to be dealt with as the first order of business in every hearing," said IRB spokeswoman Melissa Anderson. If there are no objections from lawyers, the adjudicator can rule that media are allowed to attend, she added.

Katpana Nagendra of the Transnational Government of Tamil Eelam said her organization is considering an appeal of the order in Federal Court.

"We have no reason to believe these people are going to be released in the next 24 to 48 hours. It could take months to process these individuals. So our main concern is that we have access, that we’re providing the counselling and relief they need in our Tamil language. That’s really important to our members that they (the migrants) receive that support," Nagendra said.

There were 443 adult Tamils aboard the MV Sun Sea, along with 49 children who have been taken in by the B.C. Ministry of Children and Family Development.

In letters released to the media this week, the Tamil migrants who arrived in British Columbia said they were fleeing mass murders, disappearances and extortion in Sri Lanka. The country has just emerged from a long civil war between its Tamil minority and Sinhalese majority.

The United Nations has estimated that the fighting killed at least 7,000 civilians during the final five months of the conflict, and displaced about 280,000 people.

Harper’s Tuesday remarks echo the tough stance taken last week and over the weekend by Public Safety Minister Vic Toews, who recently said the MV Sun Sea was part of a "broader criminal enterprise" and a "test boat" intended to gauge Ottawa’s attitude toward large numbers of refugees arriving by ship.

Toews suggested that there may be other people-smuggling vessels eyeing how Canada handles the claims of those aboard the MV Sun Sea.

"This trend does give us some significant concern and we’ll take whatever steps are necessary going forward," Harper said, adding that it is Canada’s right to exercise its "ability to welcome or not welcome people when they come."

Toews said earlier in the week that the tramp steamer which sailed across the Pacific to Vancouver Island with the would-be asylum seekers was especially fitted to transport the maximum number of claimants and that the owners of the vessel would have made a handsome profit from the passengers.

He said that Canada’s response to the latest influx of Tamils is being watched carefully in Asia and that similar voyages are anticipated.

Canada has a high acceptance rate when it comes to refugee claimants from Sri Lanka. Since January, 85 per cent of claimants from that country have been accepted.

Similar requests for public hearings were made last October for the 76 Tamils aboard the Ocean Lady, which also docked in British Columbia.

In the end, only some of the hearings were made public, said Anderson.

Anderson said adjudicator King plans to see 60 men and 15 women on Tuesday, in groups of five, for an initial assessment.

© Copyright (c) National Post

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