Saturday, August 14, 2010

Tamil families ‘desperate’ to reunite with relatives

By Kathryn Blaze Carlson | National Post

Children, women and elderly Tamil migrants were among those who disembarked from the suspected people-smuggling ship near Victoria on Friday, and their Canadian relatives are “desperate” to make contact after months of worrying, according to the Canadian Tamil Congress.

The congress said dozens of families have called saying they believe their relatives — including a toddler, a six-year-old and an 80-year-old — were among the 490 Tamil migrants captured in “heart-wrenching images” on Friday.

A six-month-old baby and two pregnant women were believed to have been taken to a Victoria hospital, highlighting the concerns of callers who told the congress that they feared for the health of their loved ones.

A volunteer at the congress’s Toronto office, which sent representatives to British Columbia to offer the migrants temporary assistance, said phones started ringing a few days ago with news of the imminent arrival of the MV Sun Sea — a 59-metre Thai cargo ship that docked at Canadian Forces Base Esquimalt and which may be carrying Tamil Tiger terrorists alongside young children.

“We have heard from people calling about brothers, fathers, sisters, nephews, nieces and husbands, and there was one family that called about a two-year-old,” said Vathany Uthayam, adding that the team of 10 volunteers has fielded upward of 35 calls from mostly Toronto-based families. “There are two or three families that think they have 10 or 11 relatives on board.”

Manjula Selvarajah, spokesperson for the congress, said that while most callers are hopeful that their relatives were aboard, some people “know for sure” that the ship’s cargo included their family members.

Among the hopeful is a Calgary man who “strongly” believes that his father was aboard the crammed cargo vessel. The National Post spoke with the man through an interpreter on Friday morning, just hours after the asylum seekers disembarked.

“Months ago, I spoke to my father and he told me he might have an opportunity to leave Sri Lanka,” the man, who did not want to be identified because he feared for the safety of his mother and sisters in Sri Lanka, said in a conference call. “He used the word ‘ship’ and said he was coming by sea.… He told me that he was going to try to come to Canada and that if he did, that I please find him when he arrived.”

The man, who said he fled Sri Lanka three years ago after being kidnapped and beaten, said he had “no idea” whether his father paid to board the ship or who may have organized the journey.

He left his father’s name and date of birth with the congress, which was the first point of contact for many of the 76 Tamil men who arrived in Canada aboard the Ocean Lady, a migrant vessel that landed in B.C. last fall.

Ms. Uthayam said the congress received collect calls from dozens of Ocean Lady migrants who spent months in a Metro Vancouver jail while being questioned by authorities, and said the office was able to connect all but about a dozen of them with their families in Canada.

She said she expects to receive similar calls in the next few days from MV Sun Sea voyagers, who will receive a congress-issued handout similar to the one given to last year’s migrants shortly after they arrived at the jail.

“We found a number on the paper, which also told us what we could expect in terms of the legal proceedings, and many of us placed calls to the congress,” an Ocean Lady migrant, who cannot be identified because his immigration proceedings are ongoing, said through an interpreter.

The congress said in a statement on Friday that MV Sun Sea migrants will receive a Tamil-language notification detailing legal and medical information. The statement — which said “the men, women and children on board have taken enormous risks” to “flee persecution in Sri Lanka” — also said the congress will connect unaccompanied youth with host families from the community.

The Calgary man said conditions in Sri Lanka are indeed dire for Tamils, and that he "definitely" thinks Tamils need "a country of our own" because "we're not treated as humans" in Sri Lanka.

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam — a terrorist group outlawed in Canada — have been fighting for a separate state for years, and the Calgary man said that "everything [the Tamil Tigers] had done was to help us, to help Tamils."

"I don’t look at the Tigers as an organization that someone made, I look at the Tigers as my fellow people and citizens.... Women and men from families across Sri Lanka gave themselves up to fight for the protection of their families," he said. “I want Tamil people to have a country where they can live freely, and live like Canadians live here."

© National Post

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