A notorious Canadian human smuggler allegedly charged up to $65,000 for illicit passage to Canada through the Caribbean, according to U.S. court documents that spotlight the hefty sums collected by those who transport migrants.
The FBI has accused former Toronto resident Srikajamukan Chelliah of levying fees of between C$28,000 and C$65,000 on a group of Sri Lankans caught aboard a cramped ship intercepted off the coast of Turks and Caicos last October.
U.S. authorities say the ship left Haiti carrying 158 passengers, including 28 Sri Lankans, who were destined for the U.S. From there, many of them were to continue by vehicle to Canada to make refugee claims according to the allegations. Some have families already in Canada.
Chelliah was also arrested aboard the ship and has been extradited to the U.S. to stand trial for human smuggling.
The interdiction of the ship has left many stranded in the Turks and Caicos, including 16 Sri Lankans who are seeking refugee status from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) so they can be resettled, possibly in Canada.
“Most of these people have borrowed or sold up to be able to fund this trip on the understanding that they would make a new life not just for themselves, but for their families,” their lawyer Tim Prudhoe told Global News from Turks and Caicos.
“It’s been a complete life disaster.”
Prudhoe said it’s been a nearly yearlong battle after he learned that dozens of people allegedly left stranded by Chelliah were being kept in a police processing facility from the middle of October until February, when he applied for their release. He said many made the desperate choice to pay the enormous sums of money to escape persecution and discrimination in Sri Lanka.
Communicating with his clients has also been extraordinarily challenging as they only speak Tamil, forcing Prudhoe to pay for a translator out of his own pocket. The ongoing restrictions around COVID-19 have also slowed the court process and meetings with clients, Prudhoe said.
“They get on a boat overnight so overcrowded that it almost sinks only to be arrested as they reach the shore of the Turks and then taken at night to a police detention centre, which is designed to hold people for a few days at most,” he said. “It’s a processing centre with holding cells. They then spend several months crammed together in only two cells.”
Three of the 16 Sri Lankans Prudhoe represents have been designated as refugees and he is hoping for the same outcome for the remaining 13.
And while Prudhoe says they are now being cared for by the Turks and Caicos government, they are being given limited food and water.
“They’re hungry because they’re not being fed enough. They’re not being provided with enough water and they’re 10,000 miles away from their homeland and still a lifetime away, in some senses, from where they wanted to end up,” he said.
“For them, the sorts of money that changed hands were really life-changing amounts.”
A spokesperson for UNHCR said it is supporting Turks and Caicos to implement its responsibilities under the 1951 Refugee Convention to ensure that potential asylum seekers are protected from being returned until a final decision has been made in their case.
“The TCI Government has requested support from UNHCR to determine refugee status for several individuals who have requested asylum on the island,” said a spokesperson for the UN Refugee Agency in an email.
Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, meanwhile, said it wasn’t able to comment on individual cases due to “privacy concerns.”
“This includes confirming or denying that an application has been submitted to us,” an IRCC spokesperson said in an email. “In general, we rely on the (UNHCR), other referral organizations and private sponsorship groups for referrals of refugees who need to be resettled.”
Chelliah, meanwhile, has been extradited to Florida where he is now facing charges including conspiracy to bring aliens to the U.S. and encouraging and inducing aliens to enter the U.S. for financial gain, according to U.S. court documents.
His public defender, Abigail Becker, declined to allow Global News to speak with her client.
“You cannot speak to my client about his pending case. Sorry, but that is not possible,” she said in an email.
According to a criminal complaint against Chelliah filed in July 2020, six confidential witnesses said they agreed to pay anywhere from UD$21,000 to UD$65,000 to be taken from Sri Lanka to Canada.
“Chelliah, together with others, had made arrangements with the Sri Lankan passengers to smuggle them to Canada in exchange for monetary payments,” the documents said. “The intended route to Canada for approximately half the Sri Lankan passengers was through the United States; and that the trip culminating in the sloop’s interdiction was part of that smuggling operation.”
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One witness who spoke with Homeland Security told investigators they would have their payments reduced if they completed various tasks for Chelliah, which allegedly included “collecting the passports of other migrants who wanted to travel to Canada and booking hotels in the Caribbean.
“(The witness) heard Chelliah tell one group of travelers that they would fly to the Bahamas, take a boat to Miami, Florida, drive to Buffalo, New York, and enter Canada over land,” the documents said.
Chelliah spent 18 months in a U.S. prison after he was caught posing as a Canadian immigration officer and other offences. In 2004, he as deported back to Canada but soon went back to human smuggling and was arrested in 2011.
He served a second prison sentence and was deported back to Canada again in 2016 but despite telling a judge he had “completely transformed,” he allegedly resumed his human smuggling business until his arrest last year. The FBI has accused him of smuggling hundreds of people into the U.S.
Liberal MP Gary Anandasangaree said his office has been contacted “by individuals in the Turks and Caicos and their friends and family who live in Canada.
“We have connected them with the UNHCR in Washington for assistance,” he told Global News in an email. “Our office will continue to monitor the situation and work with them to explore options to ensure their safety.”
Prudhoe, meanwhile, said he believes the Canadian government will “inevitably” become involved in the ordeal as many of the Sri Lankans have family around the GTA.
“What will be interesting is to see whether or not (Canada’s) attitude towards these refugees is genuine and whether the (UNHCR’s) designation will be in some way tarnished by the Canadians knowing that these people were trying to be smuggled there in the first place,” he said.