ST. JOHN'S, Canada — A group of 152 Sri Lankan refugees who were dropped from a mystery ship in two crammed lifeboats paid an Indian agency as much as $5,000 each to be smuggled into Canada, a police official said today.
The ship that set the 143 men, 4 women and 5 children into the two lifeboats remained a mystery one day after the castaways were plucked from the choppy seas of St. Mary's Bay off southeastern Newfoundland, Canada's easternmost province.
The name of the mother ship had been scratched off the lifeboats, and none of the refugees admitted to knowing its identity.
Police said today that they doubt some aspects of the refugees' story that they had drifted five days in the Atlantic, speculating that part of the story was made up so the ship that dropped them could flee to the high seas.
The police said they doubt that the refugees could be taken from the sea after five days with dry clothes of the heavy European variety. A doctor who examined them also said their condition indicated that they may have spent at most a night on the ocean.
"It would be pretty hard to drift at sea for five days in an open life raft without getting at least a little wet," Royal Canadian Mounted Police Inspector Jack Lavers told reporters.
Lavers said the refugees all claimed to be fleeing persecution on their troubled island off India's southern tip.
The refugees, who were spotted by Newfoundland fishermen Monday afternoon, told the fishermen and Canadian authorities that they had been drifting on the Atlantic five days after an unidentified vessel dropped them into the sea.
One refugee--a Tamil, who are the minority in Sri Lanka, formerly known as Ceylon--said in broken English when questioned by reporters that the 152 castoffs paid an Indian agency $2,400 each for the flight from guerrilla war at home.
Such Indian agencies, which are illegal, move people across borders and out of countries.
Mother Ship Sought
"Yes, 30,000 rupees ($2,400) to an agency," the Tamil said. "I don't know (the agency's name). It was an Indian agency."
But Lavers said he was told that the refugees paid between $3,000 to $5,000 to an Indian agency and left India for Canada on July 7. He did not know how the refugees got from Sri Lanka to India.
He said a search is being launched for the suspected mother ship. If the boat is still in Canadian waters, the captain and crew could be liable for charges under the Canadian Immigration Act, Lavers said.
Lavers said some of the refugees have identification papers and money in both Canadian and foreign currencies, but few had passports.
Jerrett Letto, manager of the regional office of the Employment and Immigration Ministry, said that most passengers have asked for refugee status or political asylum and that their claims will be investigated.