CANADA | Moroccan stowaways on a box ship to anywhere

Originally published in www.thestar.com, 2010/10/09

MONTREAL—“Are you comfortable in that jacket?” asked the refugee hearing adjudicator to the thin young man with cheekbones so pronounced one could almost imagine them tearing through his taut, chestnut skin.

“I want him to be at ease,” the adjudicator, Marisa Musto, told his Arabic interpreter. Her tone was official, but also gentle.

The jacket, which he appeared to have received in detention to guard against Montreal’s brittle autumn winds, he removed slowly, at first unable to unshackle himself from it at the wrists.

Very little is known about this young man with the short, dark hair except that, on Friday afternoon, these were some of the first encounters he was having with the Canadian justice system.

And that a dramatic decision he apparently took 13 days ago, to blindingly board a cargo ship to who-knows-where, led him here.

He looked small, the pale yellow walls of a large, sparse Immigration and Refugee Board hearing room surrounding him. Who is he? Who are his people? Why is he here?

“My goal,” he said haltingly, once given the opportunity to speak, “was to work and to help my family.”

Board hearings that involve refugee applications are usually in-camera, but Musto opened up the hearing on condition the man wouldn’t be identified.

She did this partly because people like him are increasingly in the sights of the federal government, which, following the landing of hundreds of Tamil boat people on the west coast in August, is promising to crack down on trafficking and clandestine immigration.

If nothing else, what emerged from Friday’s detention review hearing was that the desire to leave one’s circumstances for a long, long shot at a better life has never disappeared.

The man stowed away in a container on the boat along with eight other Moroccan nationals. The two reviews the Star was able to attend heard that the men had no identification documents to speak of, and were remanded into custody as a result.

One young stowaway was using asthma medication to offset the effects of the stale air in the container. The only other possessions with him were a cellphone and keys to a motorcycle.

A representative from the Canada Border Services Agency recounted the events as follows:

The cargo ship, the MSC Lugano, left Casablanca, Morocco, on Sept. 26, headed for Canada. On Oct. 4, Canadian authorities received a fax indicating two migrants were found on board. Later, a new fax said there were nine aboard, and all were apparently Iraqi. The next day, more information arrived saying they were, in fact, Moroccan. When the ship arrived at about 1 a.m. Oct. 7 at the Port of Montreal, RCMP and CBSA agents were there to meet it.

That night, in an interview with the agents, the young man said no one helped them make the trip. In other words, this was no human smuggling operation. He told agents he had no idea as to the boat’s destination.

He further told agents he didn’t want to return to Morocco, and giving some indication as to his state of mind, he said “he hadn’t slept for seven days,” the CBSA representative recounted.

“I came to Canada,” the young man explained. “I got on the boat, but I didn’t know where it was going. I didn’t know if it was going to Spain or Italy.”

He just wanted to work and help his family, he added, prompted by lawyer Jamal Fraygui.

But there were no details offered as to what the migrants went through as they hid in the container. What did they eat? Where did they relieve themselves?

Deaths among container stowaways are not uncommon.

They were, Fraygui hinted at the hearing, “found in conditions I’d not qualify as humane.”

By the time they reached port, they appeared in decent condition.

Fraygui, who’s representing five of the nine, emphasized at the hearing that the migrants were not part of a smuggling network. “The plan was put in place in a purely artisan way,” he said.

Another young man who later sat before Musto told agents in his interview that they presumed the boat would end up in Europe.

“When asked what he was looking for from Canada, he replied he wanted to work with his diploma,” another CBSA representative recounted.

At least two of the nine migrants are not asking for asylum, and their detentions will be reviewed next week.

As for those who are, their reasons are still undisclosed. There was one clue from the young man with the prominent cheekbones, however, who admitted he was once jailed in his homeland.

He asked the Canadians not to tell their Moroccan counterparts he was here.

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