Prime Minister Vows that Sri Lankans Will Not be Turned Away
TORONTO (AP) _ Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, faced with a public opinion backlash after his government admitted 155 Sri Lankan castaways, vowed that Canada will not deny refuge to the weary.
″Canada was built by immigration and refugees, and those who arrive in lifeboats off the coast of one of our shores will not be turned away,″ Mulroney said Sunday in Ottawa.
It was the conservative leader’s first comment on the nationwide controversy prompted by the arrival in Newfoundland a week ago of 155 Sri Lankan Tamils dropped into lifeboats by a small freighter that carried them across the Atlantic.
The Tamils at first said they came from India. But they later admitted they came from temporary havens in West Germany, where they said they felt unwanted.
Canada has granted them one-year residence and work permits and officials say chances are good they will gain permanent refugee status.
″My government will do anything but allow refugees in lifeboats to be turned aimlessly around in the ocean and turned away from our shores,″ said Mulroney.
″To think that in some way 155 Sri Lankans will diminish our citizenship and ruin our immigration policies is not the resilience and strength of Canada,″ he said, despite criticism from members of his Progressive Conservative Party over admitting the Tamils when other immigrants wait years under formal procedures.
He said opposition Liberal Party legislator Sergio Marchi’s suggestion that illegal immigrants be put into camps was ″totally unacceptable.″
The Tamils have been resettled temporarily at homes and churches in Toronto and Montreal.
Radio phone-in programs and letters to newspapers indicated many Canadians disagree with Mulroney and think the Sri Lankans should be expelled.
Arul Aruliah of the Tamil Eelam Society of Canada said such reaction was racist. ″Some do not like to see people of a different origin, either as immigrant or refugee,″ he said. ″These people will shout even if you let some immigrants in under the normal procedures.″
There are an estimated 8,000 Tamils in Canada.
Some of the refugees described over the weekend the squalor of their passage.
They said they had little food or clean water and slept on decks awash with human waste during their two-week trip. They also said the ship’s captain taunted refugees who complained of thirst during their voyage and threatened to shoot anyone caught in his cabin after a can of Coca-Cola was stolen.
″We were fed tinned soup, liquidy rice, moldy bread and dirty water from two barrels,″ refugee Sivagnanam Sivapooranan said in Toronto. ″We slept crowded together in lifeboats and on the floor.″
″Many people went to the washroom in plastic buckets but I didn’t go at all,″ Godwin Ranjith, 21, said at a Saturday night news conference in Montreal. The smell was so bad some people deliberately ate nothing to control their body functions, he said.
The Sunday Star in Toronto quoted two refugees, Raja Rajaratnam, a 35-year- old construction supervisor, and Siva Sivakumar, a 22-year-old student, as saying the Tamils were allowed on deck only twice a day to draw sea water for washing.
″If I had known what it was going to be like, I never would have gone,″ the Star quoted Sivakumar as saying. ″Even an animal should not be brought like this.″
The newspaper quoted Sivakumar as saying he paid $3,000 for passage to Montreal. Hamburg police said last week the 155 refugees paid about $2,500 each to be transported to Canada.
The refugees said they offered the captain $50 for a soda to help a severely seasick man, but that the captain refused.
Ranjith said he was told by the captain, ″You can go jump in the water if you want water.″
″We deeply regret not having been open and forthright at the outset,″ said the Tamils’ chief spokesman Nalliah Wijayanathan.
Police in Hamburg, West Germany, said the Aurigae, skippered by Wolfgang Bindel and now reportedly off North Africa, set sail from Brake, West Germany with the refugees on July 28. Bindel has denied the charge.
The refugees said they were put in lifeboats off Newfoundland on Aug. 9. The ship towed the lifeboats for three hours, but then the captain cut the rope and told the Tamils to sail 350 degrees northwest, they said.
They lost their compass overboard, and the one outboard motor kept breaking down. One night they heard spouting whales and feared they would be capsized.
When a young mother mixed the last milk powder she had for her 11-month-old child, other refugees heard her make a suicide pact with her husband, agreeing to hurl themselves overboard with the baby when the last fresh water was gone.
But then, after three days, the refugees were found by a fishing vessel.