Journalist Maran Nagarasa still recalls vividly the sense of elation aboard the Ocean Lady five years ago this week when he saw a plane flying overhead with a Canadian flag. “I was sure God had arrived to save us,” he said.
But that feeling soon turned to fear as he and the 75 other Sri Lankan Tamils on board faced armed border guards and RCMP officers. On Oct. 17, 2009, they were arrested, jailed and interrogated. Eventually, most were released to await hearings before Canada’s refugee board.
Nagarasa operated his own news agency in Sri Lanka and had worked for the BBC. Sri Lankan officials didn’t like his stories and he refused to run government propaganda. He faced death threats, and a trusted and respected colleague was killed. But it wasn’t until the threats came against his wife and four-year-old daughter, that Nagarasa knew he had to flee.
He spent 45 days at sea on the rusty ship, many of those rough and stormy. All aboard claimed they were fleeing persecution after witnessing atrocities during the 26-year-long Sri Lankan civil war. Each had paid the equivalent of about $40,000 to be taken to a safe country, in this case, Canada.
But Canadian officials were suspicious and believed the men were “terrorists” and members of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam which had been fighting for a independent state for Tamils in Sri Lanka.
“We had no idea what was going on. It was only by watching the television that we found out we were all being portrayed as terrorists on the Canadian news channels,” Nagarasa said. “After hearing all those lies on the news channel, I felt as though it would have been better to die at sea than to be so falsely accused.”
The next four years was a time of turmoil for Nagarasa. He spent four months in jail. He was interrogated by Canadian officials. He was asked to spy on others. He was eventually released on strict conditions. Then he began the task of gathering documentation to prove he was a legitimate refugee. It wasn’t until 2013 that he was granted the right to stay in Canada.
'Nobody knows how many of us are wandering around with tears in our eyes … many times crying silently inside subway washrooms, thinking about what the future holds for us in Canada.' - Maran Nagarasa
“It was a long process, a hard and very mentally exhausting process,” he said.
Others were not so fortunate. Deeban – not his full name – is now in hiding in Toronto. His claim for refugee status was rejected and he can’t afford to appeal. He told the board he was targeted by Sri Lankan authorities after helping to organize an anti-government protest. His best friend was killed and he was arrested. His family – who ran a small farm and market garden – help him escape and paid for his place on the boat.
Speaking through a translator, the 31-year-old man constantly wrings his hands. He says he’s scared and he can’t go back to Sri Lanka. He says he will be arrested and tortured. He spends his days riding the Toronto subway and couch-surfing with friends. “I don’t know what to do, it’s very frightening. Some of my friends help me. That’s how life goes.”
Statistics from the Immigration and Refugee Board as of June 2014 show that, of the 76 men on the Ocean Lady, 30 have been accepted as refugees and seven have been issued deportation notices. Another 27 had their claims rejected but are under review.
“These people were fleeing for their lives,” said Lorne Waldman, president of the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers. Waldman has handled many of these cases, including one which will be heard in the Supreme Court of Canada next year.
'It was just hyperbole'
He says the government used the Tamils arriving on the Ocean Lady and those who arrived a few months later on the Sun Sea as propaganda to bring in "draconian" legislation to cut back on refugee claimants. "It was just hyperbole," he said, and an excuse to shift Canadian immigration policy away from a humanitarian approach to one which calls for caps and suspensions.
Adding to that, Waldman said the immigration minister’s office sent an official to challenge each and every claim, which made the process much more adversarial. “This is the first time I have ever seen this level of ministerial intervention,” he said.
In one case, he said a man was rejected and deported. Canadian officials notified Sri Lanka and on arrival, the man was arrested, jailed and tortured on his return. He was later found dead.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper has acknowledged and condemned human rights abuses in Sri Lanka and even boycotted a recent Commonwealth meeting because of it. David Poopalapillai, a spokesperson for the Canadian Tamil Congress, can’t understand why the federal government is taking such a hard line with Sri Lankan refugee claimants. "The same government’s policies when it comes to dealing with refugees goes in a different direction," he said. That, we don’t understand. How can the same government travel in two different directions at the same time?"
While he’s grateful to be in Canada, Maran Nagarasa said the last five years has been a dark period for him. He continues to work as a journalist and advocate for refugees. His wife and 10-year-old daughter are hiding and he’s trying to get them to Canada.
"My life is in darkness in Canada because I miss my family so much for these last five years.
"My daughter, she’s 10 years old now, every day she is calling me asking, ‘When are you going to take me to Canada, Daddy?’"
He said many others feel the same, especially those whose status has yet to be determined. “Many of them are walking like zombies here, I can see that.” He said. “Nobody knows how many of us are wandering around with tears in our eyes … many times crying silently inside subway washrooms, thinking about what the future holds for us in Canada."
Hear more on this story on CBC Radio's The World This Weekend at 6 p.m. ET Saturday.