Migrants’ Ship May Be Linked To People-Smuggler Held In Australia

Migrants' ship may be linked to people-smuggler held in Australia
Man under arrest has previous convictions

Kelly Sinoski, Vancouver Sun
Published: Tuesday, October 20, 2009

A notorious people-smuggler arrested in Australia may be behind a boatload of would-be asylum-seekers being held in Metro Vancouver.

The 76 asylum-seekers, believed to be from Sri Lanka, were taken into custody by the Canada Border Services Agency, after their ship, Ocean Lady, was apprehended off Vancouver Island on Friday.

The CBSA has refused to release any details about the passengers, including where they came from, their identities or where they're being held.

Canada's immigration ministry did not return calls by The Sun's deadline and Australia's foreign affairs department wouldn't comment.

But Australian media reports suggest the Canadian-bound migrants may be linked to other would-be Sri Lankan asylum seekers found on a wooden cargo boat off the coast of Indonesia more than a week ago.

That boat, skippered by convicted human-smuggler Abraham Lauhenapessy, also known as Captain Bram, was headed toward Australia's Christmas Island with 254 Sri Lankan asylum seekers when it was intercepted off the coast of western Java.

Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith confirmed Monday that Lauhenapessy was arrested and taken into custody by Indonesian authorities.

According to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, a spokesman for Sri Lankan passengers said those aboard the cargo ship were given the option to go to Canada or Australia. They chose Australia, he said, because it was cheaper at $15,000 per person rather than $45,000 per head to go to Canada.

The spokesman, known as Alex, told the ABC the passengers were depressed that they had chosen the boat to Australia rather than Canada even though most of them couldn't afford the longer journey.

Lauhenapessy is known for bringing more than 1,500 asylum seekers to Australia since 1999, according to media reports. He was just released from prison in June after serving a two-year sentence.

If arrested in Australia, he would have faced 20 years in prison.

The refugees on the Indonesian boat have refused to leave it, even staging hunger strikes. Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd flew to Jakarta on Monday night for discussions with Indonesian president Yudhoyono.

Meanwhile, back in Vancouver, Canada's Immigration and Refugee Board has to wait for passenger referrals from CBSA before it can review the detention orders, spokeswoman Paula Faber said. If passengers have filed refugee claims, they will be considered in closed hearings, she said.

The 76 passengers were escorted off the ship by RCMP late Friday afternoon in the Strait of Juan de Fuca and on Sunday, were taken by bus to a corrections facility.

Immigration legislation allows for the granting of refugee protection to people who are displaced, persecuted or in danger.

Harsha Walia, a member of immigrant and refugee rights group No One Is Illegal, said she understood the passengers were being held at the Surrey Pretrial Centre and that some detention reviews had already been held at the airport and at Maple Ridge Correctional facility.

But Faber insisted no detention reviews had been done and the supposed hearings might have been CBSA interviews.