Rights advocates decry detention of refugee claimants from MV Sun Sea

Amnesty International
Canadian Council for Refugees
Canadian Tamil Congress
International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group
Media Release

For immediate release
10 February 2011

Rights advocates decry detention of refugee claimants from MV Sun Sea

The Canadian Council for Refugees, Amnesty International Canada, the Canadian Tamil Congress and the International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group expressed their dismay today at the government’s aggressive efforts to keep the passengers of the MV Sun Sea in detention.  As a result, men, women and children seeking Canada’s protection have spent months deprived of their freedom, at significant cost to the taxpayer.

“Liberty is a fundamental right,” said Gloria Nafziger of Amnesty International. “It can only be restricted only when absolutely necessary and for as short a period of time as possible.  Any such restrictions should be in keeping with clear legal standards.  And everything possible should be done to avoid locking up children.  The government's approach to the detention of the Sun Sea passengers runs counter to these fundamental human rights principles.”

Most refugee claimants are not detained on arrival in Canada, and those that are detained are usually released within a matter of days or weeks.  In the case of the MV Sun Sea passengers, however, 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, vigorously opposing release by the Immigration and Refugee Board, and contesting orders of release in the Federal Court, even in cases involving children.

“We need to be fair in how we treat people fleeing persecution,” said Wanda Yamamoto, CCR President.  “Whether they arrive by land, air or sea, they should be treated the same – singling out these claimants for special harsh treatment looks like discrimination.”

Supplementary estimates[1] tabled in Parliament Tuesday reveal the huge cost of the government’s chosen response to the MV Sun Sea arrivals.  The Canada Border Services Agency expenses for the MV Sun Sea, which include the direct detention costs, come to over $22 million.  The costs for the Immigration and Refugee Board, largely for the detention reviews, come to $900,000. 

These costs would be dramatically lower if the MV Sun Sea passengers had been treated by the government the same as other refugee claimants, and released as soon as their identity was reasonably established.

As high as the current costs are, they would be even higher under the government’s anti-smuggling bill, Bill C-49, since it imposes mandatory one-year detention for designated arrivals.

“Earlier experience with the Ocean Lady passengers shows us that long-term detention is completely unnecessary,” said David Poopalapillai, National Spokesperson, Canadian Tamil Congress.  “Those who arrived on the Ocean Lady in 2009 have all being complying with their bail conditions – none of them have absconded.  Keeping the Sun Sea passengers locked up is unfair to them, expensive for the taxpayer and serves no rational purpose.”

A recently published evaluation of the Canada Border Services Agency detention program reveals that costs have been rising, there is a lack of consistency and there is inadequate consideration of alternatives to detention.[2]

See backgrounder for more information.


Colleen French, Canadian Council for Refugees: 514-277-7223 ext. 1, 514-476-3971 (cell),  email cfrench@ccrweb.ca
John Tackaberry, Amnesty International, 613-744-7667 ext. 236, 613-853-2142 (cell), jtackabe@amnesty.ca
David Poopalapillai, Canadian Tamil Congress: 416-240-0078 or 905-781-7134
Roch Tassé, Coalition pour la surveillance internationale des libertés civiles: 613-241-5298


Backgrounder: Detention of refugee claimants from MV Sun Sea

The following are examples of cases where the Federal Court confirmed the Immigration and Refugee Board order of release, contested by the government:

  • The Federal Court denied the government’s application for a stay in a case involving three mothers and their five children, detained while their identity was investigated.  The Court rejected the government’s argument that it would suffer irreparable harm if the women and children were released.  In ordering the release, the Immigration and Refugee Board had noted that the government was holding the issue of identity to a higher standard than usual: normally, the government would consent to release once the National Identity Card was authenticated.  The Court highlighted the impact of detention on the children affected: “Five young children are currently being detained and incarcerated with their mothers. They have already gone through a gruelling journey, which could leave them with severe emotional and psychological scars. Moreover, some of them are of an education age and have had no schooling for almost a year. Their prolonged detention could only aggravate their misery.”[1]
  • A journalist who worked in the LTTE controlled part of Sri Lanka was ordered released by the Immigration and Refugee Board.  The UNHCR identifies journalists as a group at risk of persecution in Sri Lanka.[2]  Although the journalist said he is not a member of the LTTE, that his paper is not an LTTE paper and spoke against the LTTE, the government is arguing that he is an LTTE member.  The Immigration and Refugee Board did not consider those arguments very strong. Nevertheless, the government contested the Board’s order of release to the Federal Court.  The Immigration and Refugee Board had ordered the journalist released on November 1, 2010.  The Federal Court confirmed the release order on 26 January 2011, rejecting all of the government’s arguments.  Because of the government’s aggressive efforts to prevent his release, the journalist spent three extra months in detention, after he had been granted his liberty.[3]

See also CCR, Myths and Facts 2011

February 2011

[1] IMM-5359-10, IMM-5360-10, IMM-5361-10, Federal Court order, 17 September 2010.

[2] UNHCR Eligibility Guidelines for Assessing the International Protection Needs of Asylum-Seekers from Sri Lanka, 5 July 2010, http://www.unhcr.org/refworld/docid/4c31a5b82.html

[3] Canada (Citizenship and Immigration) v. B188, 2011 FC 94, 26 January 2011, http://decisions.fct-cf.gc.ca/en/2011/2011fc94/2011fc94.html