Between 1945 and the early 1960s almost all transatlantic passenger aircraft stopped to refuel at the isolated Newfoundland community of Gander, a town that residents called “the crossroads of the world.” Although airlines quickly deserted Gander when long-distance jets took over from gasoline-fuelled propellor machines, there are now many citizens from autocratic states who regard the semideserted way station as a gateway to freedom. Since 1978, at least 257 refugees, mostly Cubans, have sought political asylum in the drab waiting room of the town’s international airport. But this year that steady trickle has become a flood, and 96 people claimed refugee status in Gander in the first 11 months of 1984 alone. Fully 34 of them—up from one last year —are Sri Lankan Tamils, who, along with the 20 Iranians who have abandoned flights in Gander in 1984, pose a special problem for officials who are more accustomed to dealing with refugees from Communist regimes.
To potential refugees the attraction of Gander originated in the cost-cutting policies of Eastern Bloc airlines, which include flying across the Atlantic with half-empty fuel tanks and stopping to refuel at Gander International Airport. Every week 10 planes from the Cuban national airline, Cubana, stop there on their way from several European cities to Havana, as well as five planes from the Soviet Union’s Aeroflot and four from East Germany’s Interflug.
Previously, most would-be refugees used Montreal’s Mirabel airport as a jumping-off point. But since 1978 the
Canadian government has fined airlines who accept Canada-bound travellers with inadequate documentation. Now, according to some refugees, Gander is one of the best-known Canadian towns among citizens of Communist regimes.
Of all the would-be refugees, the Iranians and the Tamils, fleeing from persecution by their country’s Sinhalese majority, use the most ingenuity in planning their trips to Gander. Often, Sri Lankans travel to West Germany to seek refugee status. Most are turned down, and so they obtain one-way tickets to Cuba on the black market and then fly to Moscow. There, they use their tickets to board Cubana flights bound for Havana—via Gander.
One 20-year-old Iranian, who asked that neither his name nor his residence in Canada be revealed, told Maclean's that his flight from conscription into Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s army began with a 32-km walk into Turkey. A $65 bribe allowed him to continue to Moscow, where he boarded a Ganderbound Cubana flight. Another Iranian draft dodger said that he rode a horse into Turkey, where he paid $1,320 for a stolen Iranian passport that ensured passage to Newfoundland. Said the refugee: “When I got to Gander, I had the equivalent of $700 Canadian in my pocket—but some people have nothing by the time they get there, not a cent.”
Because of the length of their flights, all Communist airlines allow passengers to disembark briefly at Gander to stretch their legs in a sealed area. Flight jumpers can easily catch the attention of a security guard or RCMP constable.
Usually, he makes his intentions known in a carefully memorized speech and is immediately taken upstairs to the airport’s immigration office. But the moment of escape is inevitably nerve-racking. Said one Cuban professional who defected last fall: “Once your group sees you talking to a policeman, they suspect you. Even after you get upstairs, you are not absolutely sure you will be allowed to stay. Only when you hear the plane leaving do you start to relax.”
Soon after defectors from Communist countries declare themselves, the Canadian government rewards them with permanent residence. Rick Fifield, Newfoundland and Labrador immigration director, said that all 42 such refugees who jumped planes last year at Gander are now “landed immigrants or in the process of becoming landed immigrants.” In contrast, all 34 Sri Lankans and 12 of the 20 Iranians who sought refuge at Gander remain in Newfoundland while the immigration department’s refugee status advisory committee considers whether to accept them under the terms of the 1951 Geneva Convention. Indeed, about 30 of them are now staying at Gander’s rundown Airport Inn, supported either by the federal government or the province. Said Fifield: “We do not regard them as being in jail. We simply ask them to remain in the community.”
The special treatment for refugees from Communist nations began as a time-saving tactic, according to Fifield. Previously, the status committee considered all applications for asylum individually. Fifield said that the process can take as long as 18 months. But because the committee granted refugee status to almost all defectors from Communist countries, the department now automatically refers their applications to a special review committee which was originally established to consider the claims of those whom the advisory committee had denied refugee status. The review committee grants Communist refugees permanent residence within two weeks, according to Fifield.
So far, the immigration department has not deported any of the Sri Lankans or Iranians who jumped planes at Gander this year, but in theory the majority of them still face that prospect. And the Sri Lankans in Newfoundland received an ominous hint of inhospitality last November when Liberal opposition MLA Stephen Neary questioned their involvement in the Tamil-Sinhalese race riots which ravaged Sri Lanka in 1983. But past experience with Iron Curtain defectors proves that he need not have worried. The reason: 75 per cent of Gander defectors abandon Newfoundland for Montreal and Toronto within one year of receiving refugee status.
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