The newest boat people

CHRIS WOOD July 27 1987

The newest boat people

CHRIS WOOD July 27 1987

The newest boat people


The saga began as a simple remake of a familiar plot. A rusty tramp freighter slips through the chill Atlantic fog to deposit its human cargo near Canada’s undefended coast. Men with the dark complexions of south Asia swarm ashore, risking the hazardous illegal landing to take advantage of Canada’s well-known leniency toward anyone who manages to set foot on its soil and claim the status of a refugee. The country’s reputation is confirmed when the first Canadians to encounter the new arrivals respond with reflexive generosity, offering tea and muffins.

Indeed, the resemblance to last summer’s arrival of 155 Tamil refugees fleeing civil war in Sri Lanka was so strong that initial reports wrongly identified the latest migrants as Tamils as well. It soon became clear that they were not. In fact, most of the 173 men and one woman who landed near the western tip of Nova Scotia in the early hours of Sunday, July 12, came from the Punjab, one of the most prosperous regions of northern India. Moreover, almost all were

Sikhs, members of a religious sect riven by factional intrigue and internecine violence. And as more details about their background slowly emerged, the seemingly straightforward refugee drama took on the more sinister coloring of a political thriller.

Even so, there were marked parallels between the Tamils’ arrival off Newfoundland on August 11, 1986, and the Sikhs’ appearance last week on a rocky beach 220 km southwest of Halifax. Most notably, both smuggling operations originated in western Europe, where tens of thousands of south Asian refugees have flooded into West Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium since 1984. And both clearly relied on perceptions of Canada as a soft target: an easily entered country whose immigration laws are far less restrictive than those of Europe. Immigration Minister Benoît Bouchard confirmed that perception last week when he acknowledged that existing legislation amounts to an open invitation to mass landings by illegal immigrants on Canadian shores (page 10). “Canada has no choice,” Bouchard told a news confer-

ence. “People cannot be turned back.” Indeed, the latest arrivals will probably be allowed to remain in Canada until their refugee claim is decided—a process that could take as long as five years.

But while the two refugee dramas, 11 months apart, seemed similar at first, it was their differences that stood out as more details emerged about the Sikh affair. For one thing, police and Coast Guard searchers moved quickly this time to seize the ship involved in the smuggling operation and to arrest several of its participants. Rolf Nygren, 47, a Swedish mariner with addresses in France and Spain, was arrested within hours of the migrants’ landing—and almost as quickly sentenced to one year in jail and fined $5,000 for arranging the Sikhs’ covert voyage. Two male accomplices were also jailed and fined.

Another difference this time was more striking—and potentially more disturbing. Almost from the moment the migrants appeared in tiny Charlesville, N.S., (population 116) in the early hours of Sunday morning, there were questions about their identity and motives. In the absence of any clear answers, officials voiced concern about possible associations with militant Sikh extremists campaigning for an independent homeland in the Indian state of Punjab. A videotape made by one Charlesville resident recorded several of the migrants chanting “Khalistan.” That is the name Sikh nationalists give to their hoped-for homeland, and a rallying cry for groups campaigning for its independence. Later reports suggested that the smuggling venture itself may have been organized by one such group, the Babbar Khalsa. The group, which operates in Canada and Europe as well as in India, has claimed responsibility for dozens of killings in its pursuit of an independent Sikh homeland.

Still, it was baseball, not politics, that 38-year-old homemaker Janice Hines thought of when she looked out her second-floor bedroom window at about 3 a.m. on July 12 to see what had provoked her dog, Dino, into barking.

Dimly visible through the fog was a small group of people talking excitedly. “I thought it must have been a bunch of baseball players out celebrating,” Hines recalled. But then more figures appeared, and Hines rushed to rouse her husband, William.

By then, she said, “the whole highway was blocked off, full of people. There was enough of them to wipe Charlesville off the map.”

But it was soon clear that the group’s intentions were peaceful. As Charlesville’s three dozen homes emptied, the neatly dressed, turbaned strangers milled about on the highway and on front lawns, identifying themselves as refugees and asking in broken English about transportation to the nearest big city. They seemed confused when told that they were 3,000 km from Toronto, but untroubled when told that a taxi to Halifax would cost close to $300. Only

when one of Hines’s neighbors offered to call the RCMP for help did they raise any protest. Said one of the men: “No RCMP, no immigration.”

The Mounties came anyway, arriving shortly before 5 a.m. They herded the strangers together on the lawn of a house belonging to Tim Malone. Malone, 27, a fisherman, turned on a hose to provide water for the group to drink, and a growing crowd of neighbors brought muffins, cookies, cake and peanut-buttered bread. By 8 a.m. police had located a school bus which began to ferry the group to a firehall in nearby Woods Harbour. From there, a convoy of five chartered buses left shortly before noon for the threehour trip to Halifax.

Once there, the would-be immigrants were housed in a gymnasium on the grounds of Canadian Forces Base Stadacona. Military cooks provided a vegetarian diet to accommodate Sikh religious dictates against eating beef. And military physicians began examining each of the migrants for health problems. Many required treatment for lice, and one who had dysentery was transferred to a hospital on the base.

Legally, however, the 174 people had entered a peculiar limbo. Under existing Canadian immigration law,

anyone who arrives in the country claiming to be a refugee faces a lengthy five-stage examination process that begins with an attempt to establish identity. But as immigration officials struggled to confirm the names of last week’s arrivals—few of whom carried identification documents—the process remained stalled. It was not until late on Friday that

officials announced their intention to hold hearings this week at which the migrants could formally claim refugee status. After that, most of the detainees were expected to be released under bonds provided by Canadian Sikh organizations.

Elsewhere, events moved more swiftly. Within hours of the migrants’ landing, Nygren and another man, Jasvir Singh Rana, were arrested as they returned a rented car to Halifax airport just before noon on July 12. And the next morning an armed forces Aurora patrol aircraft dipped to within 200 feet of the Atlantic about 90 miles southeast of Halifax to identify the M.V. Amelie, a rusty 190foot cargo ship flying a Costa Rican flag and steaming in the direction of the Canary Islands.

When an RCMP assault team boarded the vessel later in the day, they arrested three more men. By the end of the week two of those aboard the Amelie had been released. For their parts in the smuggling scheme, however, Nygren, Rana and Castor Lasalle, the Amelie’s 34-year-old first mate, were sped through appearances in provincial court. All three pleaded guilty to breaches of Canadian immigration law. As well as Nygren’s jail sentence and fine, Rana received a three-month jail term and was fined $5,000. Lasalle was fined $2,500 and ordered to spend 30 days in jail.

The investigation did not end there. Late last week police issued a Canada-wide warrant for the arrest of 46-yearold Naranjan Singh Maan, a Sikh with an address in Coventry, England. Said RCMP Supt. AÍ Vaughan, chief of the force’s criminal investigation unit in Halifax: “We believe that Maan had a leading role in aiding and abetting the arrival of these people in Canada.” Police believe that Maan flew from Halifax to London on July 10, two days before the arrival of the Sikhs.

It was only after Lasalle, the last to be sentenced, was led away by police on July 15 that the full scope of the operation became clear. Even then, the picture developed slowly, pieced together from statements made by lawyers involved in the trials of the three men, as well as from media inquiries in Europe and Canada and the thin trickle of information that officials released from the tightly controlled Stadacona gymnasium.

Apparently, word of the planned clandestine passage first circulated in the refugee communities of Holland, Belgium and West Germany as long ago as mid-April. Sikh sources in Europe told Maclean’s that the trip’s sponsors—whom they described as wealthy Sikh businessmen living in Europe—began a discreet campaign to recruit passengers by pointing to the success of last year’s voyage by the 155 Tamils. Said Jalwerha Sukhden Singh, a Sikh living in Belgium: “They preyed upon the most unfortunate in the community, exploiting their naïveté with promises of a golden life.”

The price of the passage began at the equivalent of $7,000, but quickly tumbled to about $2,000 when it became clear that few European Sikhs—most of whom, as foreigners, are forbidden by local laws from working — could raise the larger amount. Even so, many would-be passengers had to seek help from family members already in Canada.

Still, the trip’s shadowy sponsors raised between $250,000 and $350,000 from refugees willing to risk the illegal passage to Canada. Most of that amount appears to have remained with the trip’s Sikh backers. In turn, they recruited Nygren, who agreed to accept only $10,000 in return for finding a vessel to carry the group to Canada. On June 23 the Amelie slipped out of Rotterdam harbor, fuel

tanks full but holds empty, without informing port authorities of her destination. It was unclear at week’s end where the ship’s passengers went aboard, but investigators were focusing on brief stops the ship made off the Belgian coast, and at an unidentified northern European port.

What is certain is that by the night

of Saturday, July 11, the Amelie, under Lasalle’s command, was nosing through thick fog off the southwest coast of Nova Scotia. Lasalle, guided by satellite and a chart of the local waters, threaded a treacherous course between rock ledges and freakish tidal currents to the east and an archipelago of more than 300 tiny islands to the west. Shortly after midnight the ship

was close enough to shore for its crew to slip a handmade slide of steel bars and sailcloth over the rails. Down this, 172 paying passengers—and, it later appeared, two Indian crewmen— scrambled into six-foot-deep water and made their way to land.

The new arrivals spent their first couple of hours on Canadian soil drying out, sprucing up their appearance and trying to destroy evidence of their links to Europe. Investigators later found the remains of a large bonfire, which may have helped dispel the bone-chilling cold of the north Atlantic, as well as torn identity documents, cast-off clothing and dozens of toothpaste tubes with German markings. Joked one Charlesville resident who visited the scene later: “They had a 5 tooth-cleaning party.” z It was still dark and

0 foggy as the group set

1 out inland, following a circuitous route across a kilometre-and-a-half of

desolate, boggy grassland to the nearest road, a rutted track used by allterrain vehicles. They successfully avoided hillocks, waterholes and bogs as they crossed an area that even locals do not willingly enter. But many Charlesville residents said that they were convinced the migrants had local help to guide them through the treacherous territory. An hour later, the first of the group straggled into town.

For his part, Nygren had spent the week before the migrants’ arrival in two Yarmouth-area motels, telephoning his brother in Spain and a girlfriend in France. With Nygren at the Manor Inn was a blue-turbaned Indian who registered as N. Singh—believed to be Naranjan Singh Maan. The two men spent hours each night out of their rooms.

Later in the week the pair moved to another Yarmouth motel, La Reine, where Jasvir Singh Rana joined them.

By then the men were under RCMP surveillance as the result of a tip, evidently received several weeks earlier, that an attempt would be made to repeat the Tamils’ illegal entry into Canada.

Less than an hour after Nygren and his Sikh companions moved into two rooms of the La Reine motel at noon on July 9, RCMP officers equipped with eavesdropping devices requested neighboring rooms. It was later the same day, barely 48 hours before the planned landing, that RCMP investigators at last alerted a senior immigration official to prepare for a flood of people claiming to be refugees.

Meanwhile, RCMP and Canadian Security Intelligence Service investigators were exploring a new area: suspected ties between the illegal voyage and groups campaigning for an independent Sikh state. Since 1978 the campaign for an independent Khalistan has grown increasingly violent—and alarmingly international. In the Punjab itself, violence reached a peak in 1984, when 2,000 armed Sikh extremists occupied the religion’s holiest shrine, the Golden Temple in Amritsar. Indian army units stormed the temple, killing 600 Sikhs.

Five months later, Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was gunned down by her own Sikh bodyguards.

In Canada, police have repeatedly suggested that Sikh extremists were responsible for the worst terrorist air attack in

history —the June, 1985, explosion aboard an Air-India jet flying from Toronto to Bombay which killed 329 people. Then, last December, two Montreal Sikhs were convicted of conspiring to bring down another airliner, possibly as an act of revenge for the assault on the Golden Temple. In an unrelated plot, four Vancouver-area

men were convicted in February of attempting to murder a vacationing Punjabi cabinet minister.

One of the most militant groups advocating independence for Khalistan is the Burnaby, B.C.-based Babbar Khalsa—the Tigers of the True Faith. The group’s fanatical adherents have claimed responsibility for more than 40 political killings in India between

1979 and 1981. Its leader, Talwinder Singh Parmar, 42, a Canadian citizen, is wanted by Indian police for the murders of two policemen in the Punjab in 1981.

Last week Parmar flew to Halifax, ostensibly to offer his help to the Sikhs being held in detention at CFB Stadacona. But his presence only added to investigators’ questions about the Babbar Khalsa’s possible role in planning last week’s landing. Said one official close to the investigation: “We are worried about a possible link to the extremist Sikh groups.”

By week’s end, the evidence of a link remained thin: some of the detained migrants were reported to have told investigators that they had paid the money for their passage to Babbar Khalsa agents; one was seen wearing a black T-shirt inscribed with the Babbar Khalsa name; and Toronto immigration lawyer Mendel Green, hired by the Babbar Khalsa to represent detained Sikhs, appeared to have been supplied in advance with the name of at least one of the Amelie’s passengers. Even so, Maclean's learned, officials intended to extend the detention of as many as a dozen of the men while investigations into their backgrounds continued.

Still, most of the groups representing Canada’s approximately 200,000 Sikhs continued to regard the 174 detainees—at least one of whom, the sole woman, is Turkish—as legitimate refugees, and to demand their release. Several offered to assist the new arrivals. In Ottawa, Gurcharan Singh, president of the Federation of Sikh Societies, said that his members were willing to cover all the would-be immigrants’ settlement costs. A Montreal restaurant-owner seeking an Indian chef offered to hire a migrant if one proved qualified.

In Halifax, meanwhile, the city’s tiny Sikh community of two dozen families began planning a welcoming feast for the 174 people who had travelled half the globe, for much of the time skirting the law, in order to reach Canadian soil. But by week’s end, it was a celebration that was temporarily on hold. Bouchard bluntly declared that he was prepared to detain some of the migrants as long as was necessary to confirm their identities. The minister’s stance seemed calculated to show that Canada has adopted a new—and tougher—attitude since the day 11 months ago when 155 Tamils blazed the illegal transatlantic trail to its shore.

-CHRIS WOOD with RALPH SURETTE in Halifax, HILARY MACKENZIE in Ottawa, BELLE HATFIELD in Charlesville and PETER LEWIS in Brussels