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Don’t treat Ocean Lady passengers as criminals: watchdog group

A watchdog group that advocates on behalf of migrants and refugees is warning officials not to violate the human rights of the 76 migrants who arrived aboard the ship Ocean Lady, and urging members of the news media to avoid calling the newcomers “illegals or criminals.”

The group No One Is Illegal issued a press release today saying it “will be working with other community organizations and legal support networks to ensure the migrants are treated justly and with respect and dignity.”

The release cites a September 17, 2009 statement from the United Nations Rights Council condemning the imprisoning of “irregular” immigrants while trying to sort out their legal status.

“The migrants aboard Ocean Lady are being criminalized. They have been handcuffed and being held in Surrey Pre-Trial Centre, which is deplorable and absolutely unacceptable,” says Harsha Walia, member of No One Is Illegal-Vancouver, in the press release.

The passengers discovered aboard the Ocean Lady have been identified from photos by the Canadian Tamil Congress as Tamils seeking asylum in Canada. Following a civil war in Sri Lanka, tens of thousands of Tamils are seeking asylum in other lands, and refugee camps in Sri Lanka are reported to be packed with Tamils living in bad conditions.

“This most recent example of irregular migration should come as no surprise to the Canadian government,” says Alex Mah, a member of No One Is Illegal quoted in the group’s release. “Increasingly restrictive immigration and refugee policies debunk the myth of Canada as an open and accepting country. Migrants - such as the 76 men presumed to be Tamil - seeking safety and fleeing wars are forced to resort to more and more dangerous routes.”

RCMP Sergeant Duncan Pound told reporters on Sunday that the Mounties will investigate the migrants to see if any criminal charges are relevant.

"The RCMP's perspective, as the lead investigative agency for criminal code offences or the federal statute offences, we'll be looking at any time a vessel approaches and arrives in Canada, where we're not sure of who the individuals are or what the cargo would have been on the vessel," Pound said.

"Part of our job will be to drill down on those details and find out if there are any offences that would apply under Canadian law."

In the meantime, says No One Is Illegal member Peggy Lee, “Public officials and the media must refrain from stereotyping these migrants as illegals or criminals. They have survived a long and arduous journey in the hopes that the Canadian state will fully comply with its international refugee and human rights law obligations.”

David Beers is editor of The Tyee

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