A wary welcome for a human cargo

MARY JANIGAN August 3 1987

A wary welcome for a human cargo

MARY JANIGAN August 3 1987

A wary welcome for a human cargo

He was deported from Canada in 1980—after he had lived and worked illegally for at least a year in Vancouver. But last week, 10 days after he waded onto the Nova Scotia coast from the rusty freighter Amelie, Amrik Singh Dhinsa became the first of 174 East Indian refugees to walk free into the warm Halifax night. Immigration officers had argued that the small-framed Sikh should remain in custody because he had lied about how he arrived and about his previous deportation. His common-law wife, whose name is not publicly known, had begged Vancouver immigration officials to detain him because she said that she was afraid that he would harass her and her two children. But Dhinsa, released when a Halifax-area Sikh paid $3,000 as a cash deposit and posted a $2,000 performance bond, insisted that he was a changed man. “I would like to now abide by the laws of this country,” he said. “I thank God I am free. I thank the country I am here.”

Dhinsa’s release came amid a continuing storm of public protest over immigration laws that will allow the 174 East Indians to remain in Canada for up to five years until their claims for refugee status are processed. Last week immigration adjudicators offered to release 165 of the new arrivals if sponsors posted performance bonds ranging from $3,000 to $7,000. But by week’s end, only Dhinsa was free. Two were held for health reasons: one with venereal disease, the other with tuberculosis. Seven were detained as security risks, including one facing a murder charge in India. And warrants were issued for the arrest of four men who slipped away from the Amelie after it dropped its human cargo on Pubnico Beach on July 12.

In fact, although there is sufficient evidence to keep only seven in detention for security reasons, Maclean’s has learned that immigration officials and the RCMP consider 12 of the 174 to be serious security threats. Indeed, according to federal officials 33 of the 174 are

wanted for offences in India and Europe ranging from blocking traffic and participating in demonstrations to arms dealing, arson and murder. One of the seven, arrested three times for arson and bank robbery in India, told the RCMP that he supported the drive that aims to carve an independent state out of India’s Punjab: “I will fight for Khalistan. If my party says to do anything, I will.” Officials also said that another man, a member of the All India Sikh Students Federation, said, “If [the federation] says I have to kill, I will.” A third man insisted, “If I was told to kill a member of the [ruling] Gan2 dhi family, I would do ^ so.” Indeed, during inx terviews with RCMP offii cers, all seven vowed to kill if killing was necessary.

Immigration officials have asked the RCMP, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), Interpol, and British, Dutch and German security agencies for additional information on the arrivals. Preliminary reports show that 39 of the 174 have appeared in the central files of the Netherlands, where officials suspect that 20 of them claimed asylum. If Canadian officials receive sufficient evidence of criminal activity, they will be able to arrest the suspects once again under the Immigration Act and hold them in detention, although according to Canadian immigration law their refugee claims must be processed. And Solicitor General James Kelleher said last week that there is no evidence to justify deporting any of the 174. Said Kelleher: “One has to have good evidence, and we’re not at that stage yet.” The zeal of that security investigation troubled civil libertarians. Last week a group of prominent lawyers called for an independent federal inquiry into the immigration department’s treatment of the refugees. Alan Borovoy, general counsel to the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, argued that the government violated the Charter of Rights and Freedoms when it detained the East Indians for two days without a hearing— and without access to lawyers. He said that the charter guarantees “everyone” the right to counsel and the right “not to be arbitrarily detained or imprisoned.” Declared Borovoy: “At issue here is nothing less than public respect for our legal and judicial system.” Respond-

ed Edward Donagher, director general of the immigration department’s operations branch: “We complied with the law and treated them as humanely, legally and expeditiously as possible.”

Sikh leaders, in turn, said that they were offended by the depth of public outrage—and the lack of public sympathy. Toronto lawyer Sher Singh said that the 174 East Indians had a dreadful voyage in the hold of the Amelie, in cramped quarters, without washing facilities or water. “The only contact they had with the outside world was a light bulb turned on for five minutes a day while food was thrown down to them,” Singh said.

Raghbir Singh Samagh, Canadian secretary of the International Sikh Organization, charged that the East Indians received unfair treatment. “The Conservative party is trying to gain some votes,” he said. “They are using Sikhs as scapegoats.”

For many Canadians, baffled by the decision to release the previously deported Dhinsa, the law has become the major issue. Under the current act, there can be as many as seven stages, lasting up to five years, in the immigration process for refugee claimants. A bill to substitute a simpler, three-stage process has stalled in the House of Commons under criticism from opposition parties and human rights groups. The current process begins with a departmental hearing that can permit detentions of up to seven days.

Adjudicators detained all 174 arrivals on July 15. When those detentions came up for renewal last week, 162 were granted releases pending the posting of bonds.

Three East Indians had already undergone the next stage in the process: a formal immigration inquiry where arrivals claim refugee status, although only Dhinsa was released because his bond was posted. The other 162 will have their formal immigration hearings in various cities in Canada depending on

the location of their sponsors. For those still under detention in Halifax, the next step is a detention review hearing. Refugee cases then move to the refugee status advisory committee in Ottawa. Claimants can appeal any negative decisions to the Immigration Appeal Board, then to the Federal Court of Canada and finally to the Supreme Court of Canada. Everyone who claims refugee status has the right to proceed through all seven steps.

Last week, at Dhinsa’s formal inquiry, immigration officials argued that he probably would not show up for future stages of the refugee process. Adjudicator Bruce Tune agreed that Dhinsa was untrustworthy. But he argued that Dhinsa’s fellow Sikhs, knowing that their money and their reputations were at stake, would ensure his appearance. He ordered I Dhinsa to report o monthly to the Halig fax immigration of" fices. And he forbade Dhinsa from moving from the Halifax area without written permission.

For many security officials and politicians, in India and in Canada, the handling of the boat people appeared naïve. Last week, during a visit to Toronto, India’s former foreign minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, warned that Canada’s relations with India—and even the life of Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi—are in jeopardy until Canada learns how to handle international terrorists. Now leader of the opposition Janata Party, Vajpayee charged that Sikh terrorists “are collecting money here. They are collecting arms here. They are organizing people to o come from India and other parts of z the world to Canari da.” For many Canadians, Vajpayee’s blunt message was an uneasy reminder that it is often difficult to determine which refugees are the victims —and which are the oppressors.