Mystery Lithuanians land in Canada

  • 2002-08-08
  • Mark Taylor
Ten Lithuanian citizens were picked up in Nova Scotia by the Canadian coast guard after their boat was blown into Canadian waters by rough weather.

The Lithuanians - five women and five men - were apparently on a pleasure cruise from the Azores Islands to the French island of St. Pierre-Miquelon but left the boat in a small catamaran and washed up on an uninhabited Canadian island some 150 kilometers north of Halifax.

Four of the 10 claimed asylum and are having their applications processed, while the others are being held in jail awaiting deportation, officials said.

Coast guard officials found eight of them on the island and picked up the other two on the side of a highway flashing wads of U.S. dollars to cars passing by. They were carrying $2,000 in cash.

The captain of the boat the Lithuanians left, also suspected to be Lithuanian, is wanted by Canadian police for questioning.

Immigration officials called their story baffling.

"This is definitely quite unusual but desperate people will do desperate things," said Ron Heisler, regional director of Canada's citizenship and immigration department.

He said those Lithuanians detained would be given a hearing with legal representation before the citizenship and immigration authorities move to deport them.

Those in jail have denied wanting refugee status, saying the incident was a misunderstanding, but the others claim they cannot work or feed themselves in Lithuania and are seeking a new life in Canada.

The men, who apparently hid from the rescuers on the island and snuck to shore by raft, explained at their hearing on Aug. 2 that their intentions were to come to Canada for a new life. "We would like to stay in Canada because it's impossible to live in Lithuania," said Ricardas Sakalauskas, one of the asylum seekers, at a hearing Aug. 2.

Randy Ladouceur, a judicator at the hearing, ordered continued detentions of the non asylum seekers.

"I am not of the opinion these individuals are trustworthy and credible," he said.

Heisler said it would take up to a year for Canadian authorities to approve or reject the others' asylum applications.

Attorney Lee Cohen, representing the asylum seekers, said their claims deserved to be investigated.

"Lithuania is often overlooked as a country where someone could have a legitimate refugee claim," he said.

But Vaidotas Verba, Lithua-nia's acting ambassador in Canada, said he did not believe Canada was the men's final destination.

"I believe that the refugee claims are a desperate step to stay in North America and there is more than one country in North America," he said.

He said the situation is complicated by Canadian misunderstandings about Lithuania.

"(Officials) were calling me almost every half hour at one pint asking questions about why someone from Lithuania would want to seek asylum," he said.

Ernestas Glezeckas, one of the asylum seekers, admitted that the whole group of Lithuanians had come to Canada on purpose.

"Our aim is to stay in Canada. That's the purpose of our coming here. We have problems in Lithuania," he explained through a translator.