(United Nations) – The United Nations refugee agency said yesterday it is encouraged by the way Canadian authorities have handled the situation involving 490 Sri Lankan nationals of Tamil origin who arrived by boat to the country last week and have claimed asylum.
The group, which includes men, women and children, were passengers of the cargo ship MV Sun Sea that docked at Vancouver Island in the province of British Columbia on Friday.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) noted that the reception site for the arrivals was well designed, and that needs in terms of information gathering, food and water have been well anticipated.
“Based on what we have seen thus far, we commend the exemplary work of the Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) in coordinating the arrival and reception of the MV Sun Sea passengers,” UNHCR spokesperson Andrej Mahecic told reporters in Geneva.
He added that UNHCR supports the important work of law enforcement agencies in combating human smuggling, an issue that has received much attention in relation to the MV Sun Sea case.
“It is nonetheless important to recognize that while refugees and migrants might use the same means of transportation, sometimes illegal, refugees are a distinct group with critical protection needs,” said Mr. Mahecic. “It is not a crime to seek asylum.”
The agency said it recognizes the considerable challenges that disembarkation and the processing of people from MV Sun Sea will entail, and will be following these activities to help compliance with the relevant provisions for treatment of persons seeking asylum and refugee status.
Sri Lankan forces declared victory over the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in May 2009 after a conflict that had raged on and off for nearly three decades and killed thousands of people.
UNHCR recently issued revised guidelines pertaining to Sri Lanka to help decision-makers in reviewing asylum claims, including a recommendation that in light of the improved security situation since the end of the conflict, claims by asylum-seekers from that country should be considered on their individual merits rather than on a group basis.
There are currently almost 146,100 Sri Lankan refugees in 64 countries, with over 73,000 hosted by India. In addition, there are more than 7,500 Sri Lankan asylum-seekers known to UNHCR in 57 countries, with Switzerland, Malaysia and Canada topping the list of host countries.