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1986: Sri Lankan migrants rescued off Newfoundland

The Story


Crammed into two lifeboats and floating off Newfoundland, 150 people have been rescued by local fishing boats. Set adrift for up to five days, some of the boats' occupants are in poor health after their ordeal. But who are they? According to this CBC News report, one said he was Chinese, while another claimed to be from Sri Lanka. The Canadian Coast Guard says the lifeboats carried no identification - a suspicious sign that the castaways were attempting to gain entry to Canada.

Medium: Television
Program: The National
Broadcast Date: Aug. 11, 1986
Guests: Bernie Leonard, Bruce Reid
Host: Knowlton Nash
Reporter: Kathryn Wright
Duration: 2:45

Did You know?


• "He asked me if this was Canada," rescuer Felix Dobbin told the Globe and Mail in a news story the following day. "I told them it was Newfoundland but I don't think he had ever heard of it. He wanted to know if he was near Montreal."

• The castaways - members of the Tamil minority in Sri Lanka - said they had departed from India about 35 days earlier in a cargo ship and had been on the lifeboats for about five days.

• RCMP Inspector J.W. Lavers was skeptical that they had been on the lifeboats for as long as they claimed. "It is remarkable that after five days of fog and rain their clothes would be dry," he said.

• Upon landing at St. John's, the group was housed in dormitories at Memorial University while they were interviewed by immigration officials and the RCMP. The castaways claimed they were refugee Tamils who had paid between $4,200 and $7,000 to gain passage to Canada.

• Within days, the castaways' story had unravelled. Further investigation revealed that the boat that carried them to Newfoundland had not departed from India, but from the German port of Brake. The Sri Lankans had all been living in Germany as refugees and had paid $3,450 for passage to Canada on a freighter.

• Their journey at sea had lasted 11 days, and they had been in the lifeboats for two nights and three days. The ship's captain, a German, collected about $500,000 to transport the Tamils across the Atlantic. After loading them into the lifeboats and towing them for half a day, he cut them loose and pointed the way to Montreal.

• German police arrested two Tamils and a Turkish man in Hamburg on suspicion of masterminding the smuggling scheme. But, according to the Globe and Mail, no charges were ever filed.

• The landed Tamils received one-year ministerial permits to stay in Canada, which allowed them to work. All were eventually allowed to remain permanently. The majority of the refugees settled in Montreal, which already had a well-established Tamil community, and the rest went to Toronto.

• The Tamils' landing set off a nationwide debate about how Canada treats refugee claims. In response, the Mulroney government enacted an overhaul of the refugee system in 1988.

• Less than a year later, German authorities warned the Canadian government that one of the suspects in the smuggling operation was planning a repeat involving 250 Tamils. It never transpired. However, in July 1987 a boatload of 174 East Indian refugees, mostly Sikhs, landed in the fishing town of Charlesville on Nova Scotia's south shore. Three men were quickly arrested and sentenced for devising and carrying out the smuggling operation.

• In November 2005, the Canadian government strengthened the penalties for smuggling people into Canada. Three new offences were specified: trafficking in people, benefiting financially from human trafficking, and withholding or destroying identification documents in a trafficking operation.

• In 2005, Canada acted to reduce the number of people claiming refugee status. A reciprocal deal with the United States, the Safe Third Country Agreement, enables Canada to turn refugee claimants back at the border if they've already reached the United States.


Also on August 11:
1977: Gordon Fairweather is appointed chief commissioner of the new Human Rights Commission.
1996: Jacques Villeneuve wins the Grand Prix of Hungary, his third on the Formula One circuit in his rookie season. Villeneuve will go on to win four races and finish with 78 points in the standings, behind champion Damon Hill.
1999: An unmarked ship is caught by the RCMP after dumping 150 illegal immigrants from China on a remote beach in B.C.'s Queen Charlotte Islands.


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