Human smuggling or Tamil Tigers -- A story from the 'Ocean Lady'

After the MV Sun Sea was boarded and escorted into Canadian waters on August 12, speculation has been rampant about whether there are members of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE, or Tamil Tigers) on board, and whether this is an instance of human smuggling.

Columnists and news anchors have been wondering how these refugees who were "languishing in camps" managed to escape and find a boat to take them across the Pacific. This is the wrong question. The refugees who arrived on the MV Sun Sea and the Ocean Lady, which landed in Canada last October, probably escaped the Sri Lankan Civil War months beforehand.

One migrant from the Ocean Lady, who I will call Suresh, told me that he was in Thailand in June 2009. "An agent took me from Colombo to Thailand, where we waited a month. He gave us shelter and food. He then boarded us on a bus. About two weeks later, we boarded a small boat and then onto a bigger boat." He says that travelling so far on a boat was a new experience for him, and he spent the first few weeks vomiting.

The vomiting, and the dehydration, made him so weak that he slept on-and-off for about five days. It was only after a week had passed that he mustered up enough strength to wash his face and find something to eat. Preparing food was increasingly difficult as the boat made it further and further into open water. "The waves were very harsh," he says, "if some food was being prepared for us, the waves would knock all the pots and pans to the floor, and they would have to start over."

Suresh is very nervous during our interview, convinced that I was going to write something that would jeopardize his refugee application. When asked about the agent he paid to transport him to Canada, he begins with why he needed an agent in the first place. In 2000, his father was kidnapped from his home in Vavuniya by a white van, and, to this day, he does not know his whereabouts. A few years later, he himself was taken and kept for three days. It was after this that his mother made it clear to him that he would have to leave for another country. She sold their land, and is now renting a home in Vavuniya. "She's still there," says Suresh.

Suresh used this money to pay an agent in Sri Lanka $10,000 to get him to Thailand. Once in Thailand, he paid the agent another $30,000. After the agent boarded them on the bus in Thailand, the migrants never saw him again. At this time, the bus contained around 50 people. My repeated questions about who the agent was were met only with shy smiles. Many refugees, even though they are paying large sums of money to these smugglers, feel indebted to them and will rarely reveal their true identities. As one refugee lawyer based in Toronto noted: "It is very rare for them to turn against the smugglers. For refugees, they are gods. They gave them a life in a new world."

These smugglers maintain several safe houses in countries like Thailand where refugees are held. There, they sit and wait until an opportunity arises. This opportunity came after the end of the war in Sri Lanka. Ships like the MV Sun Sea can be purchased in places like Thailand or Singapore for a minimal price. Once obtained, the ship often goes through a process of modification. The interior of the ship, which may contain much that is not needed for human smuggling, is renovated. It is then equipped with partitions, sleeping quarters, and the like, before smugglers start shopping for passengers.

In the case of the MV Sun Sea, sources say that initially the smugglers were able to collect about 225 people, charging them anywhere between $22,000 and $45,000 (CDN). Later, this number ballooned to 490, with the remaining refugees probably paying much less.

There has also been speculation about whether the smugglers are Tamil Tigers or members of the Sri Lankan army. The true story is probably less elegant. The smugglers are more likely petty criminals. As one Tamil community organizer told me, "They are not Tigers. These guys just hang around Thailand and other countries waiting for an opportunity like this."

Once Tamils in Sri Lanka feel that their lives can return to normal, the smugglers will have to wait that much longer for their next pay day.

Amarnath Amarasingam is a doctoral candidate at Wilfrid Laurier University, and is currently writing his dissertation entitled: Pain, Pride, and Politics: Tamil Nationalism in Canada.

This story originally appeared in transCurrents.com.

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