TORONTO • The refugee claims from the nearly 600 Sri Lankans who paid smugglers to ferry them to Canada are moving slowly and face dwindling odds of success, new statistics show. More than two years after the Ocean Lady arrived off Vancouver Island carrying 76 Sri Lankan asylum seekers, only one has been accepted as a refugee so far, according to newly released Immigration and Refugee Board figures. Another has been ordered deported and the remaining claims are pending.
Of the 492 Sri Lankans who arrived in 2010 aboard the MV Sun Sea, only three have been recognized as refugees while 13 claims have been withdrawn and five abandoned. The remainder of the cases are scheduled to be dealt with over the next few months.
Together with an acceptance rate for Sri Lankan refugee claimants that plummeted to 57% last year, from 76% in 2010 and 91% in 2009, the figures suggest that the 568 boat people who arrived on Canada’s West Coast may face a tougher time than their countrymen who arrived earlier.
In a refugee hearing room in Toronto on Monday, a passenger on the Ocean Lady described how the village where he lived was initially controlled by Tamil Tigers rebels, who would visit his home to collect money from his father.
He said his female cousin joined the rebels and was killed, but that he had never been recruited.
After the Sri Lanka Army captured the village, troops based near his house would send him on errands, causing him to miss school, he said. “Sometimes they ask me to buy for them cigarettes,” testified the man, identified at the hearing only as OL-61.
He said he left home for three months and stayed with a friend who lived closer to school. But when he returned after exams, he said he was detained by a dozen soldiers. They blindfolded him with his shirt, bound his hands and took him away on foot.
“Many people were taken away like this and later on nobody knew what happened to them,” he said. One of the soldiers struck him in the forehead with the butt of a rifle, knocking him unconscious, he said. Showing his scar, he said that when he came to he was in a hole in the ground.
He was able to climb out after dark and, seeing no guards, made his way home, he said. Fearing for his life, he left for the capital, Colombo, and fled to Malaysia, remaining there until boarding the Ocean Lady for the journey to Canada. The boat arrived on Oct. 17, 2009 and was immediately seized and boarded by the RCMP and the Canada Border Services Agency.
“His account is fairly typical of what would have happened at that time,” his lawyer, David Yerzy, said after the hearing. “He was of the age that the army would perceive that, because of his ethnicity, he might be a rebel. So they would beat him up, they would bother him, they would harass him.”
While the man has been out of Sri Lanka for several years, he still fears the army and pro-government militias. “And then there’s the fear that if he goes back today, they’re going to look at him, they’re going to look at his age and they may ask him about who he was,” he said. “There should be some concern that people are still being tortured and arrested on suspicion.”
The case is scheduled to resume on April 19. The hearings are being held behind closed doors but the National Post applied to attend and was permitted access to Monday’s proceedings.
His claim comes as Canada is accepting considerably fewer Sri Lankan refugee claims than it has in more than two decades. Just over half of the 492 claims finalized last year were accepted, down from a high of 96% in 1989.
“All refugee protection claims referred to the IRB are reviewed on the evidence presented in that individual case and decided on its merits. Each case is unique,” said Anna Pape, a refugee board spokeswoman.
“The statistics do not reflect the many factors — besides the alleged country of persecution — that members must consider before making a determination.”
A combination of factors is likely responsible for the drop, notably the end of the Sri Lankan civil war in 2009. But the federal government also appears to be paying closer attention, particularly to those cases that involve human smuggling.
While the Canada Border Services Agency rarely intervenes in refugee cases, it has filed notice that it intends to intervene in every hearing involving those who were on board the Ocean Lady.
Stopping human smuggling ships became a government priority after the arrivals of the Ocean Lady and the Sun Sea. Both ships were organized by a Bangkok-based criminal ring. The Conservatives have drafted legislation to crack down on smugglers and their human cargo.
Last week, the BBC reported that more than 200 Sri Lankans who had paid to be smuggled to Canada by sea had been abandoned by their agent in Togo.
David Poopalapillai, the Canadian Tamil Congress spokesman, attributed the declining success rate of Sri Lankan refugee claims to the conclusion of the war and the notion that ethnic Tamils can find safe pockets in which to live within Sri Lanka.
But he said those migrants who came to Canada aboard smuggling ships will be looked upon with suspicion by government officials in Colombo if they are returned to the island.
“If they go back, they are going to face a terrible time,” he said. “They still face a risk.”