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UNHCR encouraged by Canada's handling of Tamil boat people case

Briefing Notes, 17 August 2010

This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson Andrej Mahecic to whom quoted text may be attributed at the press briefing, on 17 August 2010, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

UNHCR continues to follow the developing situation of 490 Sri Lankan nationals of Tamil origin, former passengers of the cargo ship MV Sun Sea which docked at Vancouver Island in British Columbia last Friday. According to our staff in British Columbia, all 490 passengers have claimed asylum.

Based on what we have seen thus far, we commend the exemplary work of the Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) in coordinating the arrival and reception of the MV Sun Sea passengers. The reception site was well designed, and needs in terms of information gathering, food and water have been well anticipated. In addition, the priorities for safe disembarkation of the ship were clearly defined with medical needs topping the list for those on board, who include men, women and children.

UNHCR supports the important work of law enforcement agencies in combating human smuggling, an issue that has received much attention in relation to the MV Sun Sea case. It is nonetheless important to recognize that while refugees and migrants might use the same means of transportation, sometimes illegal, refugees are a distinct group with critical protection needs. It is not a crime to seek asylum.

UNHCR recognizes the considerable challenges that disembarkation and the processing of people from MV Sun Sea will entail. We will be following these activities on an ad-hoc basis to help compliance with the relevant provisions for treatment of persons seeking asylum and refugee status.

In the case of Sri Lanka, UNHCR has recently issued revised guidelines to assist decision-makers in reviewing claims to asylum. Those guidelines include our recommendation that in light of the improved security situation since the end of Sri Lanka's conflict in May 2009, claims by asylum seekers from that country should be considered on their individual merits rather than on a group basis.

According to UNHCR's most recent statistics, there are a total of 146,098 Sri Lanka refugees in 64 countries. India (73,269), France (20,464), Canada (19,143), Germany (12,248), United Kingdom (8,615), Switzerland (2,836), Malaysia (2,132), Australia (2,070), United States (1,561) and Italy (964) are the top 10 countries hosting Sri Lankan refugees. There are also 7,562 Sri Lankan asylum seekers known to UNHCR in 57 countries. The top ten countries hosting Sri Lankan asylum-seekers are: Switzerland, Malaysia, Canada, Germany, Norway, Thailand, US, Netherlands, Japan and Australia. Last year, 34,000 new asylum seekers submitted their claims in Canada.

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Shortly after the tsunami hit Sri Lanka, killing over 30,000 people and displacing nearly 800,000, UNHCR was asked to take a lead role in providing transitional shelter – bridging the gap between emergency tents and the construction of permanent homes. The refugee agency is not normally involved in natural disasters, but lent its support to the effort because of the scale of the devastation and because many of the tsunami-affected people were also displaced by the conflict.

Since the 26 December 2004 tsunami, UNHCR has helped in the coordination and construction of over 55,000 transitional shelters and has directly constructed, through its partners, 4,500 shelters in Jaffna in the north, and Ampara District in the east. These efforts are helping some 20,000 people rebuild their lives.

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