Lankans stranded in Togo

Two hundred Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka are stranded in West Africa, BBC reports, after the human smuggling ring they hired to bring them to Canada marooned them in Togo.

The BBC says the contingent travelled by ship from Sri Lanka to India, then on to Ethiopia before flying to Togo. After being assured they could fly to Canada from neighbouring Ghana, they say their human smuggler abandoned them, the report says.

They are currently being detained in an open stadium in Lome — Togo’s capital city — and have complained of inadequate food and medical facilities. There are 19 women and 11 children among them, according to BBC reports.

The 200 fled Sri Lanka following the country’s recent civil war, and fear they may be killed if they’re made to return to their homeland.

“We have been arrested and detained here on charges of overstaying our visa period since 24th October last year and have been told that unless we voluntarily return to Sri Lanka, we would be deported forcefully,” one detainee told the BBC’s Tamil Service.

Public Safety Minister Vic Toews said Tuesday he could not confirm reports about the wayward refugee claimants.

“I understand that there’s some rumours going around in respect of another illegal migrant boat,” he said. “I can assure you that our agencies work closely with governments around the world in order to stop criminal activities with respect to human smuggling.

“We will continue to work with allies overseas and ensure that human smugglers do not involve themselves and criminally take advantage of unfortunate people,” he added.

Toews said the government hopes to quickly pass a bill titled the Preventing Human Smugglers from Abusing Canada’s Immigration System Act.

“We urge our opposition parties here to support that legislation to ensure that we have the appropriate tools by which to deal with human smuggling and criminal operations,” he said.

The BBC report says Canadian officials — as well as staff from the United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees and the International Organization for migration — have visited the detained Sri Lankans.

Following the conclusion of the Sri Lankan civil war in May 2009, minority Tamils were held in detention centres as the government tried to distinguish rebel fighters from ordinary citizens. Since this time, a number of ships loaded with Tamil refugee claimants have tried to make it to Canadian shores.

In August 2010, the MV Sun Sea docked at Vancouver with 492 refugee claimants. More recently, ships have been intercepted before reaching Canada, where refugee claims can be made.

To cope with the problem of Tamil refugee ships, Canada has started a Human Smuggling Task Force, according to a report by Embassy magazine. An unknown number of Canadian officials have been sent to Thailand and are co-operating with local and regional authorities to intercept refugee ships, the report says. (Montreal Gazette)