Immigration Minister Jason Kenney made national headlines last week when he claimed that authorities in Southeast Asia intercepted yet another vessel of Sri Lankan Tamil migrants bound for Canada.
But many of the nearly 90 migrants – who remain aboard the docked ship – now claim that they've always wanted to go to New Zealand, not Canada.
This, at least, is what the migrants told a correspondent for the Sunday Star-Times who earlier this week went aboard MV Alicia, which is moored off the coast of Indonesia.
"They unfurled their banners, screaming, 'We want to come to New Zealand, We are not terrorist and smugglers, We are refugees, New Zealand please accept us. UN help us,"' the correspondent quoted the passengers as saying. He also quoted one refugee saying that the Tamils aboard the ship "want to go to New Zealand and nowhere else."
Given the discrepancy between the claims of the passengers and the claims of Canada's Immigration Minister, what is one to believe today?
While Mr. Kenney seized upon the Indonesian interdiction of the ship to flog the Conservatives' new human-smuggling legislation last week, his language was couched and he was cagey about his sourcing. (One independent news account from New Zealand did say investigators on the scene had seized navigational charts plotting a route to Canada.)
When asked whether Mr. Kenney still believes the ship was bound for Canada, spokeswoman Candice Malcolm told the Globe and Mail: "It's obvious that Canada has become a target for human smuggling and criminal operations. Minister Kenney was clear that 'many smugglers have open-ended contracts with passengers that don't guarantee the destination."
When asked again – "What does Mr. Kenney believe today?" – Ms. Malcolm simply reiterated herself.
"Minister Kenney was clear, 'many smugglers have open-ended contracts with passengers that don't guarantee the destination,'" she said.
Meantime, the Sri Lankan Tamils remain aboard the vessel, hoping to disembark in rights-conscious New Zealand, rather than Indonesia, a country that is less respectful of refugee rights. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has asked the MV Alicia's passengers to disembark, saying the UNHCR will give due consideration to their asylum claims at hearings in Indonesia.
The exodus of Tamil boat people from Sri Lanka began more than two years ago, after the Colombo government vanquished the insurgent Tamil Tiger guerrillas. The Tigers are considered a terrorist group by Canada and many Western countries.
In the midst of the government's victory, many Tamils fled Sri Lanka claiming to have been caught in the crossfire and would face ongoing persecution is Sri Lanka on suspicion of being allied with the Tigers.
The path of the Tamil exodus – from Sri Lanka to India's Tamil Nadu to long periods in Southeast Asia and eventually to the West, principally Australia – has exposed the asylum-seekers to criticism. Detractors claim that they are not refugees but smuggled migrants shopping for the most sympathetic country to set up in.
Two vessels arrived in Canada, bringing nearly 600 asylum-seekers who are now having their cases heard at tribunal. With ongoing legal processes, the Conservative government can do little to kick out those who've arrived.
Yet Mr. Kenney is doing his utmost to discourage new arrivals. "We are not going to be a doormat for the dangerous crime of human smuggling," Mr. Kenney told reporters last week. And he has since announced plans to capture and deport dozens of foreign war criminals allegedly hiding in Canada, and also to strip citizenship from 1,800 Canadians who he claims got their status through fraudulent means.