After more than two years of being stranded in Halifax, former Maersk Dubai sailor Juanito Ilagan says the hardest part is being able to talk to his children in the Philippines, Ruth Elenea, 8, and John Kelvin, 6, only by long-distance telephone. “My daughter asks me, ‘How come my friends have daddies and I don’t?’ ” Hagan told Maclean’s last week after finishing an eight-hour shift in the laundry room of a downtown Halifax hotel. “That’s too hard.”
Harder still for llagan and three former shipmates—Ariel Broas, Rudolfo Miguel and Esmeraldo Esteban—is explaining to their families why, two years after providing Canadian courts with dramatic testimony about alleged murders on the high seas, they are still fighting for the right to stay in Canada and to have their loved ones join them. The RCMP officers who questioned the Filipinos after the Maersk Dubai docked in Halifax in May, 1996, believed the sailors’ story that Taiwanese officers on the container ship forced three Romanian stowaways off the ship at sea. The Nova Scotia judge who presided at a 40-day hearing into a bid to have six Taiwanese officers extradited to Romania on murder charges also accepted the Filipinos’ story as true. As well, there is unrefuted evidence that the sailors’ families have been the target of threats, intimidation and harassment. Still, the four Filipinos have been denied refugee status and ordered deported. On July 21, their Halifax lawyer, Lee Cohen, made a last-ditch appeal to allow them to stay in Canada on compassionate and humanitarian grounds. Immigration officials are reviewing that application and a ruling could come as early as this week.
To many observers, the plight of the Maersk Dubai sailors is a case of justice both delayed and denied. The four men—all of whom say their lives would be in danger if they returned to the Philippines— live in cramped Halifax apartments and work long hours at a variety of low-paying jobs, including washing dishes, cleaning floors and hauling lobster crates. From that, each still manages to send hundreds of dollars a month home to support his family. It is a far cry from the comfortable middle-class life that llagan, for one, knew in the Philippines, where his wife worked as a dentist and their children attended private schools.
Meanwhile, the Taiwanese officers whom they accused of murder are back in their home country, where they have not yet faced any criminal charges. They were allowed to return to Taiwan after Nova Scotia Supreme Court Justice Michael MacDonald concluded in March, 1997, that he had no jurisdiction to rule on the Romanian extradition bid. However, MacDonald also declared that, were it up to him, the officers would stand trial on charges of second-degree murder or manslaughter.
The Filipino sailors had initially refused to testify before MacDonald, citing fear for their families’ safety. Facing the prospect of being found in contempt of court, they finally relented—but only after being assured by local supporters in Halifax that a security group had been hired in the Philippines to protect their relatives. The issue of intimidation also figured prominently in the refugee claim hearings. In its November, 1997, ruling, the Immigration and Refugee Board agreed that several reported incidents—including telephone threats, the killing of a family dog and the attempted abduction of one of the men's wives—represented clear attempts to prevent the sailors from testifying. The board said the most likely “agents of persecution” were people connected to Yang Ming Lines, the owner of the Maersk Dubai (which has resumed sailing under a new name) and a company in which the Taiwan government is a major shareholder. But it also said the harassment did not amount to the kind of persistent political persecution that would warrant granting refugee status.
Cohen’s application to let the sailors stay on compassionate grounds argues for a different threshold. Among other things, officials must be convinced that “undeserved or disproportionate” hardship would result if the men are forced to return home, it says. Cohen says his clients easily meet that test. But he also thinks that Canada has already failed the Filipinos badly. “These men did what we want people to do,” he says. “They performed a basic act of decency and they are the only ones to pay for it.”
If they knew then what they do now of the consequences, would the sailors still have reported what they witnessed aboard the Maersk Dubai? The men have very different responses. “It was the right thing to do,” says Hagan, “so why not do it?” But Broas, who was the one who dictated the original letter outlining the allegations, is far less sanguine. “No,” he declares firmly, “it’s not worth the sacrifice.” Given all that the sailors have endured for two years, it is an easily understood attitude.
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