Would-be migrants said they wanted to come to Canada; their ship was seized
October 17, 2009
VICTORIA, B.C. – Dozens of would-be migrants who arrived in Canadian waters unannounced told the armed authorities who boarded and seized their ship Friday that they wanted to come to Canada.
The vessel, “the Ocean Lady,” was towed in to Victoria on Saturday under an RCMP and navy escort after a large-scale, two-day operation kicked into gear following a tip that the vessel was in Canadian waters and acting oddly.
“The Ocean Lady was behaving in a fashion inconsistent with normal shipping practices,” Assistant RCMP Commissioner Al MacIntyre told a news conference Saturday after the vessel was moored.
“Based on this, and information received from security partners, the RCMP, with close support of the Canadian Forces and Canadian Border Services Agency, took steps to intervene.”
In all, 76 males, possibly from Sri Lanka, were led off the ship and were believed to be in good health, considering the voyage they had just undertaken, Rob Johnston, of the Canada Border Services Agency, said at the news conference.
Johnston said the vessel was in reasonable condition, especially compared to the rusting hulks that attempted to ferry Chinese migrants onto B.C. shores a decade ago.
“From what I've seen in the past, the interior was much better than previous ships we've encountered. The individuals on the ship were in what appears to be fairly good health.”
To be sure, though, Johnston said authorities are making arrangements for each of the migrants to have a medical exam.
Johnston said it appears the migrants are of a variety of ages, but he couldn't say whether any of them are children.
“Right now, we're just conducting the interviews and examination to determine admissibility and get all the personal details, so I can't really comment on that.”
Public Safety Minister Peter Van Loan said there were preliminary indications the ship originated in Sri Lanka, though he stressed that information had not been confirmed and authorities at the news conference couldn't say where the men are from.
Pictures released by the RCMP of the ship appear to show people wearing civilian clothes and waving to a helicopter overhead. Some are shirtless.
On Friday afternoon, the naval vessel HMCS Regina approached the Ocean Lady in waters near Port Renfrew and an armed emergency response team boarded it and took control, said MacIntyre.
No shots were fired and there were no injuries.
The people on board are now detained – authorities wouldn't say where – and are being processed under Canada's Immigration and Refugee Protection Act.
When asked if the migrants will be given legal representation, Johnston replied that they would “be afforded all the rights that they have under (the act) and one of those is, after examination and further processing…all individuals have the right to counsel.”
As the officials spoke, the Ocean Lady was moored to a pier within walking distance of downtown, shrouded in fog.
Ten years ago, four ships – some of them rusting and barely seaworthy – were seized along the northern coasts of Vancouver Island and their occupants detained.
About 600 people, including women and children, were on the boats, most of them from Fujian province in China.
As the people kept coming in boat after boat in July and August of 1999, hasty moves were made to turn a large gymnasium complex at Victoria's CFB Esquimalt into a mass detention facility.
Some migrants, suspected to be the so-called “snakeheads” or human smugglers in charge of the operation, were sent to Vancouver and Victoria jails. The migrants paid thousands of dollars to the smugglers for passage into Canada.
More than 50 children and teens were sent to B.C. government group homes.
Authorities believe at least two other ships snuck into B.C. waters that year and successfully delivered their cargo before being sunk.