Drawing a harder line on migrants

MARY JANIGAN August 10 1987

Drawing a harder line on migrants

MARY JANIGAN August 10 1987

Drawing a harder line on migrants

Their Sikh hosts had pledged $600,000 in bonds—and contributed $12,000 for the bus fare from Halifax. So when 92 East Indian migrants arrived at two Toronto temples last week, they listened attentively to a series of stern lectures. One after another, powerful Sikh community leaders warned their weary and already wary guests to avoid public comment about their arrival in Canada on July 12 aboard the rusty

freighter Amelie. While the Sikhs devoured a vegetarian lunch, the leaders cautioned that one indiscreet conversation could imperil the claims for refugee status of all 174 East Indians. But Sikh leader Harbhajan Singh Pandori, president of the Ontario Khalsa Darbar temple, also insisted that most Canadians welcomed the new arrivals with open arms. Said Pandori: “Ninety-five per cent of Canadians are happy to have the refugees, because we need more people in this country.”

That optimistic declaration came as the public outcry over the would-be refugees continued through its third week (page 13). According to a senior official in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), Toronto-area MPs were receiving 200 to 300 angry calls on the issue.

In Vancouver, where the Sikhs are a more visible minority, the number of irate telephone callers was even higher than in the east last week. “The last boatload certainly brought the issue into public focus,” the PMO official conceded. “It was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.” When it became clear that Canada “could not pick them up and put them on a boat,” public anger escalated.

Alarmed by the depth of that reaction, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney ordered the recall of Parliament “to deal firmly” with abuses of Canada’s refugee system. Under current law, refugee claimants can work for up to seven years in Canada while their

case proceeds through the labyrinthine claims process. The federal cabinet agreed last week to new rules designed to deter further boatloads of refugee claimants. The regulations would permit stiffer penalties for smuggling and the detention of claimants who arrive without documents. They also would provide for swift deportation of those considered security risks or those arriving from so-called safe countries—na-

tions where the claimants do not have a legitimate fear of persecution.

Mulroney said that migrants who jump the queue are abusing the law— and usurping places that should be taken by qualified immigrants. “This really sours the system and destroys the notion of fairness,” said the Prime Minister. And in a comment that appeared to prejudge the East Asian claims, he added, “We are not dealing with refugees or with immigrants here.”

Mulroney’s decision came amid re-

ports of yet another potential controversy. In Belgium, police checked ships leaving the port of Antwerp after an anonymous caller warned the Canadian Embassy in Brussels that another ship loaded with East Indians was about to depart for Canada. By week’s end, Ottawa had ordered a full-scale air and sea search for the 200-ton M.V. Walfis, presumed to have sailed from Amsterdam on July 23. Canadian officials said that if the

Walfis were sighted, the vessel would be boarded. And if it were carrying aliens, Canada would seek to have it returned to its point of departure if their lives were not endangered.

Late Saturday Maclean's learned that Canadian officials, along with authorities in Europe, were investigating possible links between the Walfis and the freighter Amelie. Ottawa received an unconfirmed report that at one time the same man had captained both vessels. Meanwhile, at sea the Walfis did not respond to Ca-

nadian Coast Guard attempts to contact the ship.

Earlier last week an Iranian man and a Sri Lankan couple landed by plane from Greenland in the small Arctic community of Iqaluit—and promptly claimed refugee status. The Iranian, Masoud Mafi, later told an immigration hearing in Montreal that he had lived and worked for almost three years in West Germany. He paid between $2,500 and $3,000 for passage to Canada because he was a member of a group called the National Armed Movement of Iranian Resistance—and feared that Iranian agents in Europe wanted to kill him. Mafi, 26, added that he planned to contact his organization’s Toronto chapter.

Then the Sri Lankan,

Ratnam Tnathan, 29, admitted that he had lied about his name, his age, the date that he left Sri Lanka and the route that he took to Canada. He also confessed that he and his pregnant wife, Malini Sellathurai, already had landed immigrant status in Denmark, where they had been living for a year. Immigration adjudicators issued detention orders for all three claimants.

Amid those reports, the special Senate committee on terrorism and public safety charged that flaws in the immigration process have allowed suspected terrorists to enter Canada—and to commit terrorist acts.

In a sharply worded report, the committee warned that immigration adjudicators have ignored security reports and freed suspected terrorists. Those suspects then spend up to seven years in Canada while their claims proceed through the system. Noted the report: “Our immigration procedures appear to be on the verge of complete collapse under the pressure of current entry volumes.”

As the debate over their presence raged, most of the 174 East Indian migrants settled into temples or their sponsors’ homes in Toronto and Vancouver. In Halifax, six Sikhs remained in detention as alleged security risks, while another 17 were still awaiting sponsors to post perform-

ance bonds ranging from $3,000 to $7,000. Ninety-two settled in Toronto, while 59 went to Vancouver. In both cities, Sikh leaders offered hospitality and jobs to the new arrivals. After a dozen nervous migrants arrived last week, Daljit Singh Sandhu, president of Vancouver’s Ross Street Temple, told a news conference, “You will get the same answer from all the 12 people.”

That answer was a repeated insistence that they had come directly from India’s Punjab state on May 20. To refute those claims, federal immigration officials allowed access to the Amelie, which is anchored in a Cana-

dian Forces ammunition depot in Halifax’s Bedford Basin. Seized last month, the tramp steamer will go on the auction block next month if Ottawa cannot locate the owners.

Reporters were permitted to tour the Amelie—and found it littered with garbage stamped with European markings. In the hold where the East Indians spent their 19-day voyage from Europe were empty liquor bottles, discarded toothpaste tubes from West Germany and the Netherlands, a Penthouse magazine and a Dutch

milk carton with an expiry date of June 24.

While the East Indians clung to their story, the federal cabinet took action. After a meeting at Meech Lake, Que., Immigration Minister Benoît Bouchard announced that he will ask Parliament for expanded powers to deal with illegal immigrants. New legislation would penalize smugglers with a maximum fine of $500,000 and a maximum 10-year prison term. The current penalty is $5,000 and a oneyear prison term. Bouchard proposed that immigration officials should detain refugee claimants who arrive without documents—until their iden-

tities are established. At present, most new arrivals without documents are allowed to go free.

The proposed measures also contain tougher provisions for illegal claimants. Current law permits arrivals who are deemed security threats to claim refugee status. The new plan stipulates that refugees considered security threats cannot even begin the lengthy refugee screening process. Instead, they would be detained —and eventually deported. “I am sorry,” Bouchard de-

dared, “but I will not deal with bogus refugees any more.”

The cabinet proposals provoked strong reactions from civil libertarians. Toronto Rabbi Gunther Plaut charged that Ottawa was using a “minor incident” as an excuse to pass draconian laws. Said Plaut, author of a 1986 federal report on immigration policy: “I hope that a large, big country like Canada does not go bananas over 174 people who jumped the queue.” And George Cram, a spokesman on refugee affairs for the Anglican Church of Canada, dismissed the proposals as an “irrational panic reaction.”

Meanwhile, an umbrella organization of ethnic, church and labor groups called upon the United Nations to investigate Canada’s handling of the East Indian claimants. The Toronto-based Coalition for a Just Refugee and Immigration Policy argued that the Conservative government breached the claimants’ rights when it forwarded their names to the Indian government—ostensibly to

check connections to suspected terrorist organizations. It also charged that Ottawa violated the right to counsel and other key provisions in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Angry about the handling of the case, Lilian Ma, past president of the Canadian Chinese National Council, said, “Would these refugees be treated this way if they weren’t Sikhs?”

Bouchard’s proposals will not apply to the 174 East Indians, because changes to the law will not be retroactive. According to immigration officials, although 2,326 East Indians were deported between 1980 and 1984, only 70 were deported in 1985 and 1986. Few refugee claimants have been deported because their cases are still being considered —and Ottawa faces a backlog of 23,000 claimants.

The East Indians will have plenty of time to linger. Within several months they will face an inquiry at which they will claim refugee status. Then they will give a sworn statement about why they should be con-

sidered refugees. That claim goes to the refugee status advisory committee; if the panel rejects an application, the claimant can appeal to a review committee, which frequently permits applicants to stay on humanitarian grounds if they have a job and a family.

If rejected, the claimant can appeal to the Immigration Appeal Board— although immigration officials say that many rejected claimants simply disappear. But claimants also can press on to the Federal Court and then to the Supreme Court. Still, immigration officials already maintain that the East Indians’ demand for refugee status has no basis. “India is not a refugee-producing country,” said one official. “They’re coming because the backlog means that they can work for a few years. That’s what it is all about.”

Last May Ottawa introduced legislation to reduce that complex procedure from seven to three stages—and to shorten the proceedings. Under those proposals, a screening process would weed out at least 65 per cent of the applicants soon after they arrive. Rapid deportation would follow. That legislation bogged down in Parliament under pressure from human rights activists and opposition MPs. Last week Bouchard vowed to press ahead when Parliament resumes in the fall.

The Senate committee report on terrorism buttressed that call for tougher legislation. The report noted that there were 18,200 claims for refugee status in Canada last year—and that the sheer number of applicants and the byzantine complexity of the system had overwhelmed security forces. As the report noted: “The committee is concerned about the ease with which terrorists may gain entry into Canada through current immigration procedures.” For many Canadians, that warning was simply another signal that their hospitality— and their liberal immigration laws—have been seriously abused.