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Their eyes are full of the bewildered wariness common to strangers in a strange land. The eerie landscape of post-industrial Buffalo, N.Y., is light-years removed from the tropical home that the young Tamil mother and her two children abandoned on Sri Lanka's east coast.
Huddling with her six-year-old daughter and infant son in a squalid motel room, she explains that relatives paid a Sri Lankan alien smuggler $42,000 to get her and the children to the Canadian border.
The dealer supplied them with travel documents - probably counterfeit - for a journey that took them from the capital city of Colombo to Singapore and then New York City, with a connecting flight to Buffalo. Now they await a refugee hearing in Canada, claiming persecution at the hands of street thugs among Sri Lanka's Sinhalese majority.
The family's aim is to abandon a country with a blood-soaked past and start anew in a nation with an average income 28 times higher than that in their homeland. Forty other Tamils who have paid alien smugglers are staying in the hotel with the same burning desire.
Their route is a well-worn one. According to members of Canada's Tamil community and several officials and investigators, more than 100,000 people have arrived in Canada from Sri Lanka since 1983. The vast majority are Tamils who came as refugees, or were sponsored by immediate family members who first arrived as refugees and then gained landed immigrant status.
Over the past several years, Canada's acceptance rate of refugee claims from Sri Lanka has hovered near 90 per cent. In the United States, the figure has been as low as 15 per cent in recent years. But even though the odds are good for the current crop of aspirants waiting in Buffalo, a new life in Canada may not necessarily place them out of harm's way. The community they will join is wracked by internal divisions dictated by the politics of Sri Lanka's cruel civil war, and plagued by Tamil gangs that prey on their own people.
Canada's largest city is the overwhelming destination of choice for the Tamil migrants. In 1983, according to government and community sources, the Toronto area had fewer than 5,000 Tamils. Today, more than 110,000 live there. What is controversial is this: within the Sri Lankan community and immigration circles, it is common knowledge that most Tamil refugees paid alien smugglers fees of up to $20,000 in order to get to Canada to make their refugee applications.
But are they real refugees? That question has haunted other ethnic communities in Canada - and now plagues the Tamils. Nehru Guna, spokesman for a community umbrella organization called the Federation of Associations of Canadian Tamils, defends those who keep the smugglers in business.
He says they are desperate people who are fleeing a repressive regime and a horrific civil war who only contract alien smugglers as a last resort. Indeed, that is the story put forward by the vast majority of refugee applicants from Sri Lanka. But critics say that, by and large, it is not the real refugees who are coming to Canada.
A senior official at Sri Lanka's high commission to Canada insists that only 10 per cent of the claimants are genuine refugees - that is, individuals with a well-founded fear of persecution (at the hands of the main Tamil guerrilla group, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, he adds, and not government security forces). "It is the richest people in the north (of Sri Lanka) who have made these bogus refugee claims," says the official. "They're seeking a better economic life, greener pastures. I'm astounded as to how these people are getting through on refugee claims with these fictions."
Tiger supporters in the Tamil community dismiss those comments as an attempt by the Sri Lankan government to deny what they call widespread human-rights abuses. But there are indications that many Tamil refugees in Canada may not, in fact, have a fear of persecution.
According to records from the consular section of the Sri Lankan High Commission. More than 8,600 Sri Lankans with refugee claims pending in Canada applied for travel documents to visit Sri Lanka in 1992. The following year, the figure was 5,865. If those refugee claimants feared persecution in their homeland, why were they so eager to return? The answer, says Linga Tharmalingam, a Tamil who came to Canada in 1984 as an independent-class immigrant and is now a citizen, is to take vacations and visit family. "The real refugees are still there in Sri Lanka - and they have no money, not a penny," he says. "The refugees who are coming here are economic migrants."
But life in Canada is far from ideal for some Tamils. Like earlier waves of new immigrants, they are plagued by the gangs that prey on their own community. The Tamil underworld is carved up among three rival factions, all of which engage in extortion, heroin trafficking and arms dealing. A visit on almost any weekday to the provincial courthouse in the Toronto suburb of Scar borough, where most Tamils live, reveals a parade of young Tamil gang members up on charges related to those rackets, not to mention assault and obstruction of justice. According to detectives Paul Clark and Tony Malcolm, the Metropolitan Toronto police department's experts on organized crime in the Tamil community, almost all of the gang members entered Canada as refugee claimants. And many, they say, are trained killers, veterans of jungle boot camps run by the Tigers.
In fact, the leader of one of Toronto's three Tamil gangs was a member of the Black Tigers, an elite corps of the guerrilla army that carries out suicide missions such as the bomb blast on Jan. 31 at Sri Lanka's Central Bank that killed 86 people. According to a cohort, the gang leader assassinated several Sri Lankan officials before fleeing the country and making a refugee claim in Canada in 1989 (he was granted landed immigrant status a year later). This week, he goes on trial in Toronto for heroin trafficking. His group, which has about 40 followers, is the off-shoot of a larger gang headed by a 25-year-old Tamil whose street name is A. K. Kannan (the initials stand for the AK-47 assault rifle). Kannan made his refugee claim in 1990.
According to Clark, Kannan intensely dislikes the Tigers because they carried out a murderous campaign in Sri Lanka against a former guerrilla group, the People's Liberation Organization of Tamil Eelam. Some of Kannan's family members were apparently among the victims. His gang of 100 criminals is constantly warring with yet another group called the VVT, which police say has about 200 members. The name is an abbreviation of Velvetiturai, a city on Sri Lanka's north coast that is the home town of the top leadership of the Tigers, as well as most VVT members. The syndicate, police say, is instrumental in raising funds in Canada for the Tigers.
Violence between the gangs occasionally spills onto Toronto's streets. Last year, half a dozen Kannan followers attacked the breakaway former Black Tiger and two cohorts with axes and machetes at a busy intersection. Police later arrested suspects at an apartment in a public housing project. "A whole parade of people just kept coming into the place", recalled Const. Wayne Walker, "We'd ask where they lived and each one said, 'Here'. There were 12 of them - not a stick of furniture - and they had all come in as refugees".
Many members of the Tamil community are alarmed by the beatings and extortions by the gangs. They say that Canadian courts are ineffective and too lenient towards the criminals. The same faction of the Tamil Community is deeply opposed to the Tigers, claiming that agents of the rebel force based in Toronto use intimidation to raise donations from local businessmen - and to silence independent voices.
On April 1, David Jeyaraj, a respected journalist from Sri Lanka who moved to Toronto in 1989 and founded a Tamil-language newspaper called Muncharie (An Anthology), suspended publication because of plummeting revenues. In his final issue, Jeyaraj published a detailed chronology of a long campaign against his business by Tiger activists, including violence against shop-owners who sold the paper. Muncharie had run several stories about recent military setbacks suffered by the Tigers in Sri Lanka - news the Tigers were trying to suppress in Toronto's Tamil community. "When people read that the Tigers weren't invincible, it hurt their fundraising here", says Jeyaraj. "They didn't like that".
Police and other sources claim that Tiger bagmen send as much as $1 million a month from Canada to the rebel army. And according to the Sri Lankan high commission, several Tiger front groups that receive public subsidies funnel money to the guerrillas.
But a spokesman for the Tamil Eelam Society of Canada, which has received about $4.3 million in government grants since 1990 for such things as language training and construction of a community centre, says the charges are "malicious propaganda". He added that the group has never raised funds for causes in Sri Lanka and that its books are open to the public. But the presence of Tiger operatives and gangs in their community has frightened and frustrated many Tamils. "If the authorities don't clean up this situation. I'm moving to Singapore in three years," Tharmalingam blurts out in a moment of anger. "They hang people like drug dealers there. It's a good place to live".
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