The Thai cargo ship MV Sun Sea arrived on Vancouver Island in Canada last month, carrying nearly 500 Tamils fleeing Sri Lanka. They claim to have faced murder, kidnapping and extortion back home and are now seeking refugee status. The Canadian government has detained the refugee seekers while it determines whether they are a security threat.
About 40 activists banged drams, clanked pots and pans, blew horns and made as much noise as they could. They wanted to get the attention of about 90 Tamil women and children detained inside the Burnaby Youth Custody prison, located about 300 feet away.
Why should they stay?
Fathima Cader was at the rally. Now a law student at the University of British Columbia, she was born in Sri Lanka, but left with her parents when she was two years old.
She says the Sri Lankan government devastated the Tamil areas of the country and now those people who were displaced have "nothing much to go home to."
"Your entire town has been demolished and there have been claims that after the war it's become safer," Cader said, "but actually what we're finding is that disappearances which have been really really common during the war -- Tamil men would just randomly disappear and their bodies would appear afterwards -- continue to occur now."
Cader says the Sri Lankan government is still targeting Tamils.
And, she says the Canadian government is targeting the Tamils, too -- detaining them after their arrival from Sri Lanka because of their race.
What Canada has done
Canada has granted refugee status to more than 40,000 Sri Lankans, in the past two decades -- rejecting only 20 percent of those applying.
Canada's public safety minister told reporters that Canada has been "very welcoming" of refugees but says officials must protect the nation from criminals or terrorists. He says the refugees' voyage was organized by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a Sri Lankan separatist group. The Tigers have been considered a terrorist group by many nations and are banned from entering Canada.
Cader is not convinced that the refugees are a threat.
"I'm not sure what we're investigating when we talk about a 15-year-old," Cader said. "Or, as most of the children in the jail currently are between the ages of two and ten."
Despite multiple attempts, both the Canadian Ministry of Immigration and the Canadian Border Services Agency declined interview requests. But the border agency did issue a statement to Voice of America saying every person seeking to enter Canada must follow the same rules and regulations and that all the refugee seekers who arrived on the Sun Sea will go through security and criminal checks.
According to a spokesperson for the border services agency, "the safety and security of all Canadians is a priority."
Innocent until proven guilty
But the organization No One Is Illegal says the Canadians should consider the immigrants innocent until proven guilty. One of the group's organizers, Harjap Grewal, says Canada has been prioritizing trade with Sri Lanka instead of demanding that the island nation improve its treatment of Tamils.
"We've seen over and over again that governments prioritize economics and their economic interests and it often sidelines the very basic justice for most people around the planet," Grewal said.
Grewal says the economic opportunities for Western countries in Sri Lanka come at a cost.
"It comes at a cost of human beings," noted Grewal. "And, it comes at a cost of the oppression that the Tamil community has faced. So we've naturally seen very similarly these migrants that have come here, the refugees that have come here, they're being denied access.
What the refugees are saying
The refugees were charged $40,000 to $50,000 each to make the voyage. Through the Canadian Tamil Congress, the refugees issued a statement saying they underwent "severe hardships" with little or no access to basic necessities like food, water, medicine and sanitary facilities during their four months at sea coming from Sri Lanka to Canada.
The Canadian government is considering increasing penalties for human smugglers and potentially banning smuggling ships from entering Canadian waters.
Canada's immigration minister is in Melbourne to meet with his Australian counterpart to discuss human smuggling. Minister Jason Kenney says Canada intends to work at home and abroad to "combat the crime and fraud associated with the treacherous journey some immigrants make to Canada."
Back at the rally in Vancouver, the activists play Tamil music from an iPhone, through two speakers and a mixer powered by a portable generator. They hold a large red banner that reads "We Welcome You. We Support You" in Tamil. Children inside the detention facility can be seen looking out at the demonstration.
Several protesters verbally abused the driver of a Vancouver City police vehicle entering the detention facility.
The activists demand the immediate release of all the refugee seekers. But the Canadian Border Services Agency told Voice of America that the refugees will remain in detention until the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada completes its review.
However, some of the immigrants are being taken out of jail.
A pregnant woman was the first of the refugees to be released from detention, last Monday. She was let go with her three children. The country's independent Immigration and Refugee Board decided to release another four female migrants from custody. But the government appealed to Canada's Federal Court about their release. On Friday, the court ordered the government to let them go free while they await hearings on their refugee applications.
Canadian officials believe there is a possibility that more ships will head to Canada from Sri Lanka. He told reporters the Sea Sun may be seen as a "test ship."