British Columbia

Tamil hearings begin Tuesday in Vancouver

Immigration officials hope to begin detention review hearings on Tuesday in Vancouver for the roughly 490 migrants who arrived in B.C. aboard a cargo ship on Friday.
Migrants look over the side of the MV Sun Sea after it was escorted into CFB Esquimalt. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

Immigration officials hope to begin detention review hearings on Tuesday in Vancouver for the roughly 490 migrants who arrived in B.C. aboard a cargo ship on Friday.

The migrants are believed to be Tamils from Sri Lanka and most are expected to make refugee claims. They have been held in custody since their ship docked in Victoria.

The Immigration and Refugee Board is required to hold the hearings within 48 hours of detention, but with so many people, it is expected the board will require considerable time to hear all the cases.

The board had expected to begin hearings Monday.

Toronto-based immigration lawyer Lorne Waldman, whose law firm will also be involved with the migrants, says the first issue will be determining their identities.

Waldman said most of the migrants will likely stay in custody after the first set of hearings, but later hearings over the next few weeks will attempt to determine what security risks they might pose.

Suspected Tamil Tigers

The federal government has already accused some of the passengers of being members of the Tamil Tigers, a group labelled a terrorist organization by Ottawa several years ago.

The ship's passengers included more than 50 women and 50 children.

Officials were processing the migrants over the weekend as they were transferred to Vancouver-area jails.

There is still little concrete information about the migrants and how they came to set sail for Canada, but more details could emerge in the coming week at the detention hearings in Vancouver.

The public is typically barred from hearing the details of refugee detention hearings, but media outlets have applied to attend — a request that was granted last October after 76 Tamils arrived on a similar ship, the Ocean Lady.

Initially, those hearings focused on confirming the identities of the migrants, who were detained as the federal government said it was having difficulty determining exactly who they were.

Eventually, the detention hearings — which are held at regular intervals once someone is detained — revealed allegations some of the men were members of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a banned organization and separatist group that lost a 26-year civil war against Sri Lanka's government last year.

Those suspicions were never proven, and, by this past spring, all 76 had been released while they await the outcomes of their refugee claims.

Focus on identities

The migrants aboard the Sun Sea can expect something very similar, with this week's hearings likely focusing on their identities and the federal government already signalling it believes there were Tamil Tigers aboard the ship.

Waldman, who represents some of the migrants who arrived last year, said the newly arrived migrants can expect to be held for at least for the next several weeks.

"It's not likely that most of these people will have passports, and if they don't have them, they have to produce other identity documents," Waldman said on Sunday.

"That will likely keep the people in the detention for a period of time, for one or two or three detention reviews, but at a certain point, if [the federal government] still [hasn't] found the identity and they can't show they're trying, [the migrants] can be ordered released."

After that, the issue will turn to whether any of the migrants pose security risks, and the onus will again rest with the federal government to offer evidence some of the migrants are linked to the Tamil Tigers.

Women and children involved

Waldman also said the detention reviews will be complicated by the fact that, unlike in the case of the Ocean Lady, there were a significant number of women and children aboard the Sun Sea.

"The key issue will be the women and children, and I think it's extremely important that the children not be separated from their parents, or at least one of their parents," he said. "I think it's likely that the minister will prioritize the children and the women who have children so they can be released."

A review hearing is mandatory not only 48 hours after someone is detained, but again at seven days and then once a month after that.

However, Waldman said that timeline will shift somewhat as the Immigration and Refugee Board wades through hundreds of cases.

"They've got to get through 490 cases, and they're not going to be able to run more than six or eight at a time," said Waldman.

"They're going to have a hard time keeping up."

On Sunday, officials confirmed one of the migrants died just weeks before the ship arrived off the British Columbia coast.