Part 1: Woman who risked everything to escape, now faces Canadian bureaucracy

Nirangela and her husband knew when they boarded the MV Sun Sea, along with 490 other men, women and children, they were in for a long and dangerous journey to Canada.

The Tamil couple had waited anxiously for seven months in a muggy apartment building in the Silom district in Bangkok, hiding from the authorities to avoid being arrested as illegal immigrants.

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Finally, they were taken by bus to the port city of Songkhla, where they crowded onto the rusty cargo ship and watched the land disappear behind them, hoping the next solid ground they touched would be in Canada.

"When we got onto the ship, we were told very clearly we might die," she said, speaking in Tamil with a friend translating. "But that was a choice we had to make. That was a better option than staying in Sri Lanka and dying. "

Nirangela is a slight 21-year-old with dark brown hair gathered in a ponytail. She spoke to the Times Colonist on condition of anonymity and her name has been changed to protect her identity.

She has been taken under the wing of Sam Nalliah, president of the B.C. chapter of the Canadian Tamil Congress, who acts as a father to her and her husband.

Sitting in Nalliah's Burnaby home one evening in late July, she spoke rapidly in Tamil. When she was comfortable enough to switch to English, she thought out the sentence and delivered it just as fast, nodding after she finished speaking, as if confirming to herself that she got all the words correct.

Her petite frame and young face make her look as if she's in her late teens, but she's remarkably self-assured for a 21-year-old, with the air of someone who has had to mature quickly because of experiences she'd rather forget.

During the brutal civil war in Sri Lanka, Nirangela and her husband would often run from one safe zone to another, trying to stay a step ahead of the cluster bombs that would rain down without warning.

Even with the 26-year civil war over, Nirangela said she lived in constant fear of being raped or killed because she belongs to the Tamil minority, which was crushed by the government. She and her husband left their families behind in Vanni in northern Sri Lanka and went to Thailand.

Many refugees end up in Thailand, Malaysia or Indonesia because it's easy to get in on a tourist visa. Because Thailand is not a signatory to the UN convention on refugees, which sets out refugees' rights as well as responsibilities of asylum-granting countries, refugees are considered illegal immigrants and face being arrested and held indefinitely in a Thai detention centre. They could be waiting years to be resettled by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which has pointed to poor conditions in transit countries as a major factor pushing people to get on boats.

Nirangela and her husband paid $3,000 each to get on the MV Sun Sea, selling their valuables to raise the money.

Nirangela said conditions on the ship were "pretty adverse," with two toilets for 492 people, two of whom were pregnant. The food and drinking water were carefully rationed over the eight-week journey.

When they finally came on deck and saw two navy frigates, they cheered at the sight of the Canadian flag.

But when the weary travellers stepped off the MV Sun Sea and onto Canadian soil at CFB Esquimalt, it was not the end of their journey.

After medical checks and photographs to determine their identity, Nirangela and the other adult women were kept in the Burnaby detention centre. She has few complaints about the conditions — she was just happy to be on Canadian soil — but she was upset at being kept away from her husband.

Their only contact was a five-minute phone call once a week.

Nirangela was released Nov. 20, 2010, three months after the Sun Sea arrived, but it was another four months until her husband was allowed out. The immigration board determined he could file a refugee claim, but the Canadian Border Services Agency, which can request an admissibility hearing if it believes the person could be a security risk, appealed the refugee board's decision, alleging he was a member of the Tamil Tigers.

Nalliah dismisses that as a joke. "This guy had never carried a gun, never pulled trigger," said Nalliah. "He's such a timid fellow, I could never believe that he could ever carry a gun."

Nirangela and her husband have not been given a date as to when his case will be decided, which increases the stress of waiting. Nirangela can't apply for refugee protection until her husband's admissibility is decided. If he is accepted, they can both carry on with their refugee hearings, but if he is rejected, they will both be deported and have no right to appeal. The Canadian Council for Refugees, a non-profit umbrella group for organizations working with refugees, said the government is being much more aggressive in challenging the MV Sun Sea claimants.

"The government has been demanding more proofs of identity than usual, investing significant energy and resources in a search for adverse information about the passengers, advancing weak arguments for inadmissibility based on tenuous alleged connections with the LTTE [Tamil Tigers], vigorously opposing release by the Immigration and Refugee Board, and contesting orders of release in the Federal Court, even in cases involving children," the council wrote in a statement.

"In the case of the Sun Sea, there was a lot of political strategizing around these cases," said Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees. "They weren't just treated in the normal way according to the law and normal processes; there was a decision being made on how to treat them in a different and special way."

Nirangela said she was subject to intense questioning by CBSA officials about why she left her country and whether she was an economic migrant or a genuine refugee.

"CBSA officer, they asking everybody, did you come to make the money or come because of refugee problems, your country situation," she said in English. "We came here because of the country situation. We can earn from our country, too, we have nice and beautiful country, so think about it, why we want to come?

"We don't do anything wrong here; we're just working hard and we don't get any welfare."

Nirangela is working in a pizza place in downtown Vancouver, while her husband works at a gas station. She eventually wants to study to be a registered nurse and her husband wants to work as a carpenter. When his case is settled, they'll have a proper wedding in Canada, with Nalliah walking her down the aisle.

She sees a life for them both in British Columbia.

"I want to stay in Vancouver forever. I love it. It's beautiful."

Nalliah says the government's reaction to the MV Sun Sea's arrival, ushering in a policy of mandatory detention and other, tougher refugee reforms, has tarnished Canada's international reputation.

"You are going to make their initial days in Canada excruciating. Also, you are wasting taxpayers' money by doing that. I don't know what that will achieve, but I would say that's a fruitless venture."

kderosa@timescolonist.com

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