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‘Distasteful alliances’: The secret story of Canada’s fight against migrants

In 2009 and 2010, two boats carrying hundreds of Tamil asylum seekers from Sri Lanka — the Ocean Lady and the MV Sun Sea — reached Canadian shores. Prime Minister Stephen Harper vowed to do everything in his power to prevent the arrival of other ships carrying what he called “illegal” migrants.

This Migrant Smuggling Prevention Strategy Harper created was maintained under Justin Trudeau’s government, which now dedicates nearly $18 million a year to it — more than was spent annually while the Conservatives were in power. Federal employees agreed to talk to Radio-Canada to shine a spotlight on some of the most secret aspects of the operation Canada has been undertaking abroad for years.

Robert [not his real name] closely followed the wide-ranging operation launched by the Harper government to prevent boats carrying migrants from making it to Canada. In an exclusive interview with Radio-Canada, the former federal employee said it offended his core values when he learned that Canada was working hand-in-glove with a colonel charged with atrocious crimes in the West African nation Guinea.

The colonel

The Harper government had dispatched field teams in Southeast Asia and West Africa to thwart the efforts of migrant smugglers. Those teams landed in multiple source and transit countries for migrants, such as Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, Ghana, Togo, Benin and Guinea.

The teams included members from the RCMP, the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS). They were aided by the Communications Security Establishment, which uses information technology in intelligence work. The Foreign Affairs and Immigration ministries also supported the strategy against clandestine migrants, which was overseen by a special adviser to the prime minister.

To this day, the Trudeau government works with local authorities in foreign countries in order to ”disrupt, interdict and deter human smuggling operations,” Global Affairs Canada spokesperson Guillaume Bérubé said in an email to Radio-Canada.

Canadian police officers are not allowed to conduct searches or make arrests in foreign countries. They must rely on local authorities to apprehend alleged smugglers or intercept migrants. But some of those local police forces are notorious for their brutal methods.

Col. Moussa Tiégboro Camara leads the fight against drug trafficking, organized crime and terrorism in Guinea. (YouTube)

One of Canada’s main allies in Guinea has been Col. Moussa Tiégboro Camara. He is the boss of the state’s fight against drug trafficking, organized crime and terrorism.

”Col. Tiégboro Camara helped us a lot, but he had too much baggage for me to feel comfortable [with the fact] that Canada worked with him,” Robert said.

”His name had to be left out of reports. It does not look good for a government to work with someone like that.”

Col. Tiégboro Camara was formally charged in 2012 for his alleged role in a massacre at a stadium in Conakry, Guinea’s capital, three years earlier. On Sept. 28, 2009, over 150 people were murdered, hundreds were tortured or brutalized, and more than 100 women were raped during a peaceful protest at the stadium. Col. Tiégboro Camara’s trial has yet to be held.

In 2009, an International Commission of Inquiry put in place by the United Nations, identified him as one of those responsible for atrocities it described as ”crimes against humanity.”

I never thought that Canada would stoop so low.– A former federal public servant on Canada’s work with a Guinean colonel accused of participating in a massacre

The Council of the European Union immediately adopted restrictive measures against Guinea and some of those deemed by the International Commission of Inquiry to be responsible for the massacre.

”I was shocked. I never thought that Canada would stoop so low,” said Robert, recounting how he felt when he learned that Canada was collaborating with the colonel. ”We don’t want to see a boat full of migrants in order to maintain a respectable image, but we will work with [an alleged] criminal in order to achieve that goal.”

The former chief of Canada’s Migrant Smuggling Prevention Strategy, Ward Elcock, gave his side of the story during two long phone calls with Radio-Canada. The former CSIS director was named in October 2010 as a special adviser to then-prime minister Harper on human smuggling and illegal migration.

When Elcock left the federal public service in June 2016, the Trudeau government did not replace him. But the strategy he oversaw was maintained. It now targets travels by land, air and sea.

Elcock denied that Col. Tiégboro Camara played a role in Canada’s mission. He said that he vaguely remembered him because of an operation to repatriate a Canadian with Sri Lankan roots who was involved with migrant smuggling in Guinea.

‘The strong arm’

But a second source familiar with Canada’s mission against migrants told Radio-Canada that ”Col. Tiégboro was tremendously helpful during those operations.”

”He was in charge of things on the Guinean side. He was, let’s say, the strong arm of the operation. He is the one who conducted arrests when arrests needed to be made,” the source added.

We managed to reach Col. Tiégboro Camara by phone in Conakry. He acknowledged working with Canada and other countries to dismantle smuggling rings.

He related an episode he said happened while he was managing a crisis in a remote Guinean forest. His government dispatched a helicopter, he said, to bring him back to the capital in order to assist the Canadian authorities.

He said that he is irritated by the fact that some argue Canada should not have worked with him because of the stadium massacre. ”The matter is still before the courts. Until a decision is made, being charged does not mean that you are guilty,” he told Radio-Canada in a French-language interview.

Ward Elcock, special adviser on Human Smuggling and Illegal Migration for the Canadian government, is shown at a press conference in Kuala Lumpur on Oct. 5, 2013. He said the Canadian mission was targeting Sri Lankan Tamils. (Radio-Canada)

Elcock argued that, regardless, Guinea was not a hotspot for the Canadian mission, which primarily targeted Sri Lankan Tamils.

”I think ultimately there were about 30 Sri Lankans [migrants] found in Guinea in total. I think in West Africa, there were well over 200 or 300, so Guinea was relatively small. In West Africa, Togo was far larger. Togo and Benin,” he said.

However, according to travel expense reports, Elcock went to Guinea at least four times between 2012-2014 — among other things to thank the Guinean government for its assistance in the fight against migrant smuggling. He expensed over $3,700 for a reception in Conakry on June 11, 2014. About 60 guests and 12 Canadian government representatives attended the event.

Documents also demonstrate that Canada paid for repairs to vehicles belonging to Guinean police, and to modernize checkpoints at the borders with Mali and Sierra Leone. Canada also partly funded renovations at the Navy Operation Centre in Guinea.

Getting our ‘hands dirty’

François Crépeau was the UN special rapporteur on the human rights of migrants between 2011-2017. ”Governing a country means that you might get your hands dirty,” he said.

That’s the reality for top secret and dangerous missions, he added — but he says interdiction missions on migration don’t belong in the same category.

”When fighting terrorism, against real threats — let’s say people building nuclear weapons — I understand that distasteful alliances might be made,” he said in a French-language interview. ”But to do so against migrants who are only trying to survive and ensure a better future for their kids, I think that it is scandalous.”

The Trudeau government refuses to state whether Canada is still working with Col. Tiégboro Camara. Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, who now oversees the strategy, declined our request for an interview.

The RCMP received over $4 million in 2018-2019, and CSIS nearly $1 million, to fight against migrant smuggling overseas. Yet both agencies refuse to say in which countries they are operating.

‘It was almost like kidnapping’

The Trudeau government also refuses to say how many individuals were arrested, charged and sentenced abroad through the Migrant Smuggling Prevention Strategy since the Liberal cabinet was sworn in on Nov. 4, 2015.

Back in the day, the Harper government described smugglers as criminals who needed to be brought to justice. Thousands of kilometres from Ottawa, however, the effects of the strategy looked very different to people close to the operation.

”There were people [alleged smugglers caught abroad] who were arrested and then set free. We don’t know what happened to them,” said Robert, the former federal employee.

”It was almost like kidnapping. The most important thing was to use the necessary means to prevent those people from making it to Canada. Mr. Harper did not want to see boats, he did not want unpleasant surprises. Those were the marching orders.”

I can’t think of more than about three or four people, maybe five, who got arrested and were ultimately prosecuted.– Ward Elcock

Stephen Harper did not reply to our requests for an interview. Elcock acknowledged that few of the smugglers caught in Southeast Asia or West Africa were prosecuted between 2010-2016, when he was in charge.

”Off the top of my head, I can’t think of more than about three or four people, maybe five, who got arrested and were ultimately prosecuted. Many people were released fairly quickly,” he said.

“In many cases, they went home. Some ended back to Sri Lanka, and some came back to Canada, because there were some Canadians involved. But very few were ever prosecuted.

“Most of those were [for] relatively small-time offences, whether it was procuring false documents, illegally crossing a border or something like that.  Nobody got any serious penalties in all of that. Many countries don’t have laws against illegal migration or assisting or even smuggling.

François Crépeau was the UN special rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants between 2011-2017. (Olivier Planter/Radio-Canada)

“We knew we would never be able to bring anybody to Canada to prosecute them. And we knew that most of the people that we would find internationally would never be prosecuted internationally.”

Elcock said that the goal was to prevent boats carrying migrants from setting sail for Canada. But he acknowledged it’s impossible to know how many such voyages the Canadian mission prevented.

There were only two documented cases of boats carrying migrants being intercepted since the beginning of the Canadian mission almost 10 years ago:

  • In 2011, Indonesian authorities intercepted the Alicia, carrying 84 Sri Lankan Tamils, with help from Canadian police. However, it hasn’t been possible to determine whether the boat was headed for Canada or New Zealand.
  • The Ruvuma was intercepted in Ghana in 2012. According to authorities, it was bound for Togo and Benin, where hundreds of Sri Lankan refugees were waiting for a ride to Canada.

Tens of million of dollars spent

In total, the Canadian mission led to the interception of two boats and charges for minor offences laid against five smugglers.

Was it worth the approximate $75 million spent on the mission between 2010-2016, while Elcock was in charge, in addition to the $46 million allocated to the mission by the Trudeau government since then?

Elcock stressed that the mission sought to ”disrupt ventures before they took shape.”

”You would start to see people moving toward a departure point, perhaps,” he said. “You might start to see somebody buying water purification or osmosis equipment in order to provide fresh water in the middle of the ocean, or they might buy a satellite radio telephone.

“There were a number of that kind of indicators that you could rely on to sort of know that a venture was in progress. And then, there was a question of trying to interfere with the creation of the venture.”

Over 150 people were murdered and more than 100 women were raped in a Conakry stadium during a peaceful protest. (YouTube (KibarouTV))

Elcock recalled a ”case where we were aware that they were looking at a boat. We sent enough people to go and tramp around the boat and scare people off, if you will.”

Elcock could not say how many ”ventures” were disrupted by the Canadian operation, but he said that he remains convinced that the mission was worth the money and effort. He highlighted the fact that no other boat has made it to Canadian shores since the MV Sun Sea, which jeopardized the lives of 492 passengers, in addition to costing taxpayers millions of dollars to process cases.

Zodiacs and infiltration courses

Global Affairs Canada spent over $9 million in 2018-2019 to better equip other nations helping Canada in its fight against clandestine migrants. The department refused to name the beneficiary countries or to say what kind of equipment and training they were offered.

Documents dating back to 2011-2014 offer an insight into how Canada spent millions of dollars in Southeast Asia and West Africa. For example, the Royal Thai Police received ”radios and communications equipment, GPS tracking units, monitoring room equipment, surveillance vehicles, shallow water quick response boats.”

In those same documents, the RCMP warns that sharing such equipment with foreign authorities can carry some risks. ”Diversion to the illicit market and inappropriate use are the key risks associated with this project,” says the RCMP, adding that it implemented measures to mitigate the risks.

Police inspect the MV Sun Sea under the watchful eye of migrants who were on board on Aug. 13, 2010. No migrant ships have reached Canadian shores in recent years. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

Elcock acknowledged that human rights are always an ongoing concern in some countries.

”To be perfectly honest, I wouldn’t want to spend time in a Thai jail even for possessing forged documents,” he said.

”But having said that, at the end of the day, I’m not aware of anybody spending a whole lot of time in a Thai jail on even charges like forged documents.

“It was quite striking that, indeed, some of those small things, like buying some small Zodiacs for a local police force, was enormously helpful … to them and to us.”

Crépeau warned that equipment Canada supplies to security and police forces in repressive regimes could end up being used to violate human rights.

”The surveillance systems, they will be deployed elsewhere and will be used to watch minorities … [to] monitor political opponents, journalists, students,” he said.

In an email to Radio-Canada, Global Affairs Canada spokesperson Bérubé wrote that ”any Canadian assistance is provided in a manner consistent with international anti-crime and counter-terrorism norms, standards and obligations, including human rights and gender equality considerations.”

What outrages me is always the hypocrisy, somewhat natural, of countries such as Canada.– François Crépeau, former UN special rapporteur on the human rights of migrants

Smugglers who offer to transport migrants in exchange for money or other material advantages are considered criminals under international law. However, the Protocol Against the Smuggling of Migrants by Land, Sea and Air — signed by Canada — states that the migrants who hire smugglers should not themselves be treated as criminals.

Canada’s ‘hypocrisy’

The Trudeau government has maintained the hard line put in place against migrant smugglers under the Harper government.

“Criminal migrant smuggling networks are a risk to Canada’s national security,” said Bérubé. ”By deliberately attempting to circumvent Canada’s border controls, they may serve as a means for terrorists and individuals linked to organized crime to enter Canada.

“These criminal networks conduct their activities for profit, with little regard for the life and safety of their passengers, and risk eroding public confidence in our open and fair immigration system.”

But Crépeau said he believes that Canada is acting in a self-serving manner. ”What outrages me is always the hypocrisy, somewhat natural, of countries such as Canada, France, Germany, Great Britain,” he said.

“In a nutshell, they decide that, ‘We will welcome refugees when they make it to our borders, but we will do everything in our power to prevent them from making it to the border.’ As such, they will finance, arm, train, equip security forces in countries where human rights are not guaranteed.”

The need for a long-term plan

Canada, like other industrialized nations, has a long-term vision for its infrastructure, such as transportation. The time has come for politicians to come up with a similar long-term plan for orderly migration, said Crépeau.

”In Canada, we plan immigration levels for three years, but not for an entire generation. More and more people will want to migrate and there is an increasing need for those people,” he said.

“Many governments do not want to open a discussion about it, because anti-immigration forces, populists are, for now, strong voices.”

Despite those challenges, Crépeau said he believes that the day will come when such an approach will be feasible.

”The generation which will follow the baby-boomers — who I belong to — will be less scared of mobility and diversity, since they already live with other youth from different colours, religions, and it doesn’t bother them,” he said.