It was a dramatic tale of torture in the Punjab and turmoil on the high seas. Muffled in florid scarves to hide their identities, three Sikh migrants explained last week how they came to Canada on the freighter Amelie on July 12—and why they deserve refugee status. The trio told a news conference in the stark dining room of a Toronto temple that they had suffered imprisonment and torture in India’s Punjab. Their only crime, they insisted, was to attend a series of religious meetings.
And when confronted with apparent inconsistencies in their stories, the three men maintained, through an interpreter, that Canadians did not understand the extent of the Indian government’s persecution. Said translator Gurcharan Singh, the secretary of the Federation of Sikh Societies of Canada:
“Sikhs are persecuted just for being Sikhs.”
As the Sikhs made that all-embracing claim on behalf of the 174 East Indian arrivals, Commons Speaker John Fraser agreed to recall Parliament this week to deal with new legislation on refugees. Two weeks ago Immigration Minister Benoît Bouchard proposed a crackdown on people smugglers, migrants who arrive without documents and illegal immigrants regarded as security threats. The new proposals complement legislation tabled last spring to compress Canada’s seven-stage—and often seven-year— process for claiming refugee status to three stages and to weed out 65 per cent of refugee claimants at the border. That bill stalled in the Commons under a barrage of complaints from opposition MPs and human rights activists.
Last week the Conservative government asked opposition parties to expedite Bouchard’s reforms and to resume debate on last spring’s legislation. But although Canadians have flooded MPs with calls for immigration law reform, opposition MPs and a handful of Tory backbenchers have vowed to oppose the _
legislation as an attack on legitimate refugees.
Bouchard was already under fire for his July 31 decision to order a full air and sea search for the converted Dutch-registered fishing trawler M.V. Walvis. On that date the minister announced that Canadian officials believed—on the basis of a tip from unidentified sources—that the vessel was
carrying passengers who planned to claim refugee status in Canada. He ordered the navy, the coast guard and the fisheries department to turn back the vessel before it deposited its human cargo. After four days British authorities spotted the bedraggled ship anchored off Torbay on the English Channel. There were no passengers—and Capt. Godfrey Roberts maintained that he was “stunned” to learn that he was suspected of smuggling.
Last week Bouchard was unrepentant: “With the same tip, I would do exactly the same thing.” Federal officials said that the full-scale four-day
search cost approximately $1 million daily. But a senior federal official also maintained that the Walvis was not entirely innocent: “I do not think it is beyond the realm of possibility that something was being planned.”
Despite those claims, opposition critics were scathing. New Democratic Party MP Dan Heap denounced the search as “a bluff and a farce—the govern-
ment has wasted millions of dollars.’ Liberal immigration critic Sergio Marchi guardedly conceded that “a search by a few boats might have been justified.” But he added, “A policy on the seas is no substitute for a solid refugee policy on land.”
While the controversy raged, the Toronto Sikh community organized its long-awaited news conference to tell the migrants’ story—and to hurl tough, sometimes inflammatory charges at Canadian authorities. Gurcharan Singh said that officials deliberately breached the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms when they did not provide the
migrants with legal counsel on their arrival and when they sent their names, fingerprints and photographs to Indian authorities. “The law was denied, lawyers were disallowed, the request to hold their identification from the government of India was brushed aside,” Singh said. “Misinterpretation, mistranslation coupled with Gestapo-like questioning techniques were employed. Should they not have been scared? Should they not have been secretive?”
Then the migrants told their tale. The three men used only their initials and the common Sikh surname of Singh: C. Singh, 27, who described himself as “self-employed”; M. Singh, 24, a tailor; and D. Singh, 31, a “trailer driver.” Two wore turbans. One tied a scarf over his head. All three swaddled their faces with scarves so that only their eyes appeared. Journalists asked why the security was necessary—since Gurcharan Singh had charged that Canadian authorities had sent their photographs, without permission, to the Indian government. His answer:
“You don’t want to rub it in more than you have to.”
At times their story seemed confused. All three apparently were living peacefully in the Punjab and attending the occasional religious gathering when, they said, the police began harassing them because they were Sikhs. C. Singh said that he spent 10 days in jail. “My legs,” he claimed, “have been beaten so much that they are crooked.” M. Singh said that he was jailed for a week. D. Singh said that a mob in New Delhi beat him after Sikh bodyguards assassinated Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1984. He put his leg on the table to show a scar. All three men said that they eventually made their way to West Germany:
D. Singh in November, 1985;
M. Singh in 1986; and C.
Singh two months ago. At least two were refused refugee status there. But Gurcharan Singh told the news conference that “there was no threat of deportation.”
How the trip to Canada was organized remained unclear. C. Singh and M. Singh said that they separately met an unknown Sikh in a West German temple, perhaps in Cologne. They said that they paid him $3,000 and $3,500 respectively for their passage,
although they did not know his name and only met him once. They said that they used their own money. They also admitted that they were members of the All-India Sikh Students’ Federation, an organization said by Indian authorities to have terrorist connections. For his part, D. Singh claimed that he arranged
his passage with an unidentified Sikh in a German temple—although he later changed that location to a railway station. The Sikh, Singh said, told him that he could pay for the trip in Canada. Then he amended that statement, claiming that the unknown Sikh told him to pay on board the ship—but that no one approached him for money. He never paid. All three men boarded the Amelie in the Netherlands on June 22 or 23.
The passage across the Atlantic was rough. Huddled in a squalid hold, they slept close to the hole in the deck that served as a toilet. Although the Amelie has a draft of at least 15 feet when empty, the three insisted that they slid off the boat into knee-high water about 30 feet from shore. They said that they were sorry that they had at first claimed to have come directly from India. As Gurcharan Singh translated: “We did not know that telling a lie would jeopardize our case.” The Canadian Sikh then added that he believed
the 174 migrants were not terrorists. But he hinted that they could be Indian spies: “My fear is that they may be used to infiltrate the Sikh community—they might try to destabilize it.” While Canadians absorbed that saga, federal officials worked around the clock to prepare this week’s legislation.
Under the new bill, smugglers of migrants would face a maximum fine of $500,000 and 10 years in jail—instead of the current fine of $5,000 and one year in jail. Authorities would detain immigrants who arrive without documents until their identity is established. Illegal immigrants who are considered security risks would be removed from the refugee process and deported. And claimants from safe third countries will face removal to that nation. Immigration officials worked through the weekend to calculate the costs of increased detentions, improved field operations and equipment to detect forged passports.
But the proposals continued to stir controversy across the country. Last week at a Toronto rally, immigration lawyer Christina Kurata, for one, denounced the recall of Parliament as “a cheap political trick.” In contrast, four Toronto university students paid $250 for an airplane to fly over the downtown core for 20 minutes with a banner that read, “Immigrants—Front Door Only.” Clearly, as MPS prepared for the trip back to Ottawa, the national debate had already commenced.
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