Four Algerian illegal immigrants arrive to Canada after having been hunkered down in double-decker buses for days
The four men hunkered down in double-decker buses for roughly 12 days, eating nothing but a fistful of dates and drinking from a few bottles of water they had smuggled on board.The four men hunkered down in double-decker buses for roughly 12 days, eating nothing but a fistful of dates and drinking from a few bottles of water they had smuggled on board.
Two of the men say their transatlantic journey began in Algeria on March 1 when they stole onto ships to escape a life they describe as destitute and lacking opportunity.
It ended two weeks later when the vessel loaded with containers and vehicles arrived in Halifax, where they breezed past a lone commissionaire and sparked a national debate about security at one of Canada’s busiest ports.
The two men, now being held in a correctional facility in Dartmouth, recounted their voyage in an interview Wednesday with The Canadian Press, telling how they easily slipped past port officials on both sides of the Atlantic to seek asylum in Canada.
“We were scared, very scared that they (the ship’s crew) would throw us overboard,” Dib Zohir, a 34-year-old house painter, said in French.
“When I saw the Maple Leaf (at the port), I realized I was in Canada and I couldn’t stop crying. I was happy. I was happy because I know in Canada you respect human rights.”
Zohir said he got on a boat in his hometown of Skikda, Algeria, where he clambered up the anchor line of a container ship and hid on board, carrying only a small bag of dates, no documentation and no money.
He believes the vessel then travelled to Liverpool, England, but he had no way of knowing where he was and insists he had no help in sneaking aboard the ship in the Mediterranean port.
He also said he had no idea where the vessel was going, knowing only that he wanted to leave the impoverished country.
“I was poor, there are problems in Algeria…,” said as two security officials at the prison looked on and took notes.
When the vessel arrived in England, he tried to get into a trailer but found it locked and instead sneaked into one of seven GO Transit double-decker buses bound for Canada.
Inside, he said he fell asleep for more than 20 hours in the rear of the second level of the bus. When he awoke, the bus was on a boat and at sea.
Zohir said he left the bus in search of water and, in a strange twist, says he found three other Algerians hiding on other buses below decks.
None knew what time of day it was, judging the passage of time by the turning off of lights since there was no sunlight coming into the belly of the large ship where the buses were located.
Rabah Debrai, who smuggled on board a vessel in the capital city of Algiers, said he too didn’t know where the ship might take him or what he might face if he was caught on board or detained wherever they landed.
They said they had all heard stories of stowaways being tossed over the side of container ships by crews who didn’t want to be charged with having them on board.
For days, they said they darted in and out of the buses to skirt crew members as they passed by. Debrai said one of the four men broke down on the sixth day of their journey, convinced that they would be thrown overboard.
“He just couldn’t stop crying,” Debrai, who left behind his three sisters and ailing mother, said in French. “He thought we would be cast out to sea.”
Debrai, wearing a prison-issue blue T-shirt, grey sweatpants and barefoot in sneakers without laces, said he feared he wouldn’t survive the trip since he had started coughing up blood while at sea.
“I didn’t know if I was going to make it,” he said through a translator, relaying how he felt when the bay doors opened in Halifax and he knew he would get off.
“It didn’t matter if I was back in Algeria – finally I could get off the boat.”
The 26-year-old pizza cook, with dark, tightly cropped curls and a grin missing several front teeth, said the men walked off the vessel in Halifax and passed by the commissionaire at the port’s main gate on March 16.
A woman directed them to the nearby Via Rail station, where they tried but were unable to buy tickets with foreign currency brought on by another stowaway.
They then travelled by taxi about 100 kilometres to Truro, where police arrested them before they attempted to board a train to Montreal.
The men said they plan on launching a hunger strike Thursday to force officials to let them contact their families overseas and help them get proper identifying papers so they might be released.
“I am not a criminal,” said Zohir, when asked about his detention and what would happen if he is returned to Algeria. “We’re not going back.”
The case has drawn criticism from Senator Colin Kenny, chairman of the Senate committee on national security and defence, who has argued the incident illustrates “a long list of failures” in port security.
A Via Rail clerk has said he tried to warn a Canada Border Services tip line that the men were at the station in Halifax, but was told they couldn’t assist without names.
Canada’s public safety minister, Stockwell Day, has said port security must he tightened and that the Canada Border Services Agency would be reviewing what happened.