British Columbia

MV Sun Sea 5 year anniversary reflected upon by refugees' lawyer

A lawyer for many of those MV Sun refugees talks about how things have gotten worse for people seeking safety in Canada.

Lawyer says that federal government has made it harder for refugees to reach and stay in Canada

On the five year anniversary of the MV Sun Sea interception, a lawyer who represented several of the asylum seekers says things have only gotten worse for refugees seeking safety in Canada.

Five years ago today, Canadian authorities intercepted MV Sun Sea off the B.C. coast and brought 492 Sri Lankan asylum seekers to shore.

And according to a lawyer and instructor at UBC, the federal government's handling of this incident had profound effects on Canada's refugee system and the changes have not been for the better.

"After the boat came, the government decided to overhaul the entire system. I think it gave the government a reason to restrict refugee protection access in Canada, and it's caused significant problems," Gabriel Chand told On The Coast's Stephen Quinn on the five year anniversary.

According to Chand, Canada's treatment of refugees has only become more restrictive since then. He says that the government's focus has been on preventing refugees from making it to Canada in the first place, and then making it more difficult for them to make claims, leaving them in danger of deportation.

Intercepted off the coast

MV Sun Sea was intercepted by Canadian authorities after a three-month journey from Thailand. The passengers claimed refugee status due to the armed conflict between the Sri Lankan government and Tamil fighters, but were detained on suspicion that some of them had links to the Tamil Tigers terrorist organization.

Of all the passengers who have had their cases heard and resolved, almost two-thirds have been accepted as legitimate refugees. However, five years later, more than 100 cases still have not been resolved.

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Chand's law firm represented several of the asylum seekers. After years of legal wrangling, most of his clients were accepted as refugees.

However, two were sent back to Sri Lanka and one of them was imprisoned, tortured, and eventually killed in that country.

What's changed?

According to Chand, the MV Sun Sea incident changed Canada's immigration system profoundly.

For example, refugees now only have 45 days to prove they are in need of protection, down from six months before. This is challenging for people who may lack documents, money, language skills and connections in Canada, he says.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, for his part, has committed to taking on an additional 10,000 new refugees from Iraq and Syria if re-elected. That's a promise Chand calls "garbage."

"If you think the Conservative government cares about refugees, I think they're pandering to the immigrant vote," he says.

Chand says that many governments, not just Canada's, need to do a better job of stabilizing regions where refugees come from to make their lives better, and stop focusing on intercepting ships and denying refugees the right to stay in Canada.

To hear the full interview, click the audio labelled: MV Sun Sea anniversary reflected on by refugees' lawyer.