Ocean Lady sparked U.S. fear of Tamil migrant tide

The U.S. government carefully watched how Canada dealt with the Ocean Lady — a boat full of Tamil asylum seekers — which arrived in B.C. in late 2009 and worried it was a sign of more to come, diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks reveal.

Canadian security resources called 'strained' in WikiLeaks-released cable

Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Minister of Citizenship and Immigration Jason Kenney board the MV Ocean Lady for a photo opportunity in Delta, B.C., in February 2011. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

The U.S. government carefully watched how Canada dealt with MV Ocean Lady — a boat full of Tamil asylum seekers — which arrived in B.C. in late 2009 and worried it was a sign of more to come, diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks reveal.

The confidential cable, dated Oct. 28, 2009, shows that U.S. officials believed that the Ocean Lady freighter plus a recent surge of Sri Lankans attempting to reach Australia marked "increasing desperation and sophistication" of Tamil migrants hoping to reach Western countries.

"Intense recent efforts by Sri Lankans to reach Western countries by boat reflect individual desperation as well as larger questions about how Tamil minorities — particularly young men  — affected by civil conflict perceive their future prospects," the U.S. State Department cable released to CBC News says.

Canadian security officials seized the freighter off the coast of British Columbia on Oct. 17, 2009, taking all 76 men aboard into custody. All passengers immediately filed refugee claims. After an investigation into possible links to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or LTTE, a group classified as a terrorist organization by Canada, all of them were released.

The MV Ocean Lady was the first boat full of Sri Lankans to arrive on Canada's shores in 25 years, but Australia had reported more than a dozen boats carrying an estimated 750 Sri Lankan refugee claimants — at least 500 of which were of Tamil origin — in the past year, the U.S. cable noted.

Each asylum claim granted in Western countries only "increases the pull of motivation for others to attempt their own passage," the cable said.

Less than a year after Ocean Lady came ashore in Canada, another larger boat, MV Sun Sea, arrived on Canada's western shore carrying 492 Sri Lankan passengers.

According to the U.S. cable, Australian officials believed that Tamil men's deep-sea fishing experience was making it easier for them to successfully complete the lengthy voyage. As well, a "complex underlying human smuggling network" not easily disabled was at play.

Approvals a 'big pull factor'

The cable cites Australian High Commission immigration officers as saying the "majority of Tamil refugee claims are likely to be accepted."

"However, the officers note that 'approvals are a big pull factor' and express concern that such results will only encourage more Sri Lankans to attempt passage to Australia."

It's an issue with which the Canadian government is also trying to deal. In 2010, the government introduced an anti-human smuggling bill after the 2009 Ocean Lady and 2010 Sun Sea ships brought in more than 560 illegal immigrants.

The bill died with the election, but the Conservative majority government has vowed to reintroduce it. The bill aims to deter migrants paying human smugglers for a way to Canada by proposing to detain such asylum seekers up to a year and postpone their applications for permanent resident status for five years.

The U.S. diplomatic cable also shows that Canadian officials worried about how the Immigration and Refugee Board would handle the highly politicized case.

Citing an unnamed Canadian official in Sri Lanka, the cable says the refugee board "is composed of appointees who have often been accused of pursuing individual agendas rather than upholding common standards for approving claims."

The refugee board later came to loggerheads with the government when it released one individual over the government's objections. The Federal Court of Canada reversed the decision and rebuked the board, accusing it of usurping the government's role in probing potential national security threats.

'Strained resources'

Another U.S. diplomatic cable notes that the effort of processing the 76 undocumented migrants had "strained resources," especially since Vancouver was just months away from the 2010 Winter Olympics.

The Ocean Lady, also known as the Princess Easwary, sits at docked on the B.C. coast. ((CBC))

"Several units from the RCMP and CBSA have been pulled out of scheduled Olympics-related security exercises to deal with detainees," the cable dated Oct. 22, 2009, said.

Canada Border Services Agency officials conducted the initial interviews and other Canadian security agencies interested in the illegal immigrants were "barred from fully participating in the early screening process," the cable says.

The document also says Canadian security authorities were "highly suspicious" of the group of 76 men because of their ages and excellent physical condition, plus the facilities on board the Ocean Lady.

"The men's excellent physical condition and the fact that they are all of military age increases the suspicion of Tamil Tiger ties," said the cable.

"According to sources, the ship, although it looked derelict from the outside, was well-appointed on the inside, complete with a fully-equipped gym and kitchen," it adds.

But despite the suspected role of the Tamil Tigers, Canada appeared determined to be "transparent, fair and efficient" in processing the illegal immigrants, the cable said.

The cables were among a Canada-related batch of leaked U.S. diplomatic documents released to CBC News by WikiLeaks.