August 14, 2020
10 Years On: Remembering Sun Sea, the Ship That Changed Canada’s Immigration Laws
13 August 2020 marked the ten-year anniversary of the Canadian navy intercepting the cargo ship MV Sun Sea off the coast of Vancouver Island, which was carrying 492 asylum seekers fleeing Sri Lanka in the aftermath of a long and bloody civil war. The arrival of the ship was highly publicized, with the federal government of the day reacting aggressively, detaining the passengers for long periods of time, interrogating them intensively, contesting their claims for refugee protection, and tabling new legislation that would give itself new powers to detain and prosecute suspected human smugglers. In the courts, the Canadian government argued to employ such a broad interpretation of human smuggling that it would have encompassed the asylum seekers themselves.
For the passengers aboard the run-down and crowded Sun Sea, the three-month journey from Thailand to Canada was dangerous and challenging, with food being in short supply. The asylum seekers had paid large sums of money – ranging from $20,000 to $30,000 per person – to a group of organizers who had promised to take them to Canada. Shortly after departing Thailand, the organizers abandoned the ship, leaving the passengers to fend for themselves. Twelve of the asylum seekers took on various tasks on the ship, volunteering to take shifts in the engine room, standing lookout, helping with navigation, and cooking meals.
Upon arrival in Canada, the asylum seekers who had volunteered to help run the ship were found inadmissible by the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada on the ground that they had engaged in transnational, organized human smuggling per the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act (“IRPA”). A finding of inadmissibility on such a ground means an asylum seeker would be ineligible to have their refugee claim heard on its merits. The cases of these asylum seekers made their way up to the Supreme Court of Canada, with the Canadian government arguing that any and all assistance to undocumented migrants would constitute engaging in transnational, organized human smuggling, and that a profit motive is not required to be found inadmissible. However, the Supreme Court disagreed, and held that the IRPA provision against human smuggling targeted those who engaged in it to obtain a financial or material benefit in the context of transnational organized crime, not asylum seekers who help each other “in the course of their collective flight to safety.” In coming to its conclusion, the Supreme Court considered, among other factors, Canada’s commitments under international law, including the Refugee Convention.
Canada prides itself on its reputation for being a welcoming country for refugees. In many ways, this reputation is well-earned. However, the legacy of the Sun Sea, and the time, effort, and resources the government has spent in hindering the refugee claims of its passengers, is a good reminder that in many other ways, Canada has a long way to go.