Canadian authorities board Tamil ship off B.C. coast
By Christina Spencer and Laura Stone; and Judith Lavoie and Katie DeRosa,
Postmedia News and Times Colonist
August 13, 2010
Canadian authorities boarded a Tamil migrant ship carrying 490 would-be refugees late Thursday night off the coast of British Columbia, after intercepting the vessel in the afternoon and escorting it toward Victoria.
HMCS Winnipeg made visual contact with the MV Sun Sea late in the morning, a federal official confirmed. In the afternoon, the vessel entered Canada's territorial waters, inside the 12-nautical mile limit.
The ship is expected to land at CFB Esquimalt, where tents have been set up for their arrival late Thursday night or early this morning.
Echoing tough statements the government has made all week, Public Safety Minister Vic Toews said the new arrivals include suspected people smugglers and terrorists.
“Human-smuggling and human-trafficking are despicable crimes. They are both illegal and dangerous.
“Human-smugglers and human-traffickers are now watching Canada's response to judge whether or not they can continue to take advantage of us. . . . We will send a message loud and clear to other criminals: 'If you do this, then you will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.' ”
Toews said while the government wants to protect real refugees, “it is imperative that we prevent supporters and members of a criminal or terrorist organization from abusing Canada's refugee system.”
Personnel from National Defence, the RCMP and the Canadian Border Services Agency boarded the vessel Thursday night.
“From there, control of the ship will be in Canada's hands,” said an official with Toews' office.
There was no sign of resistance by the Sun Sea to directions given by the navy. But the condition of the passengers believed to include women and children was not yet known.
The ship appeared off the British Columbia coast earlier this week after a months-long journey under the watchful eye of authorities.
Experts say the migrants are likely fleeing Sri Lanka after the end of a war of independence between the Tamil Tigers army and the Sri Lankan government. The Tamil Tigers are considered a terrorist organization by Canada and its members are banned from entering the country.
Staff at the Victoria General Hospital were busy preparing to treat the migrants, after reports that one person may have died on board.
Some of the would-be refugees, including women and children, may have serious health problems after their three-month voyage, health officials said.
A bulletin to the Hospital Employees Union obtained by the Times Colonist says the hospital expects to operate special units for the migrants for six days. Costs will be paid by the federal government.
The Vancouver Health Authority told the HEU that in addition to registered nurses, a reopened ward on the hospital's seventh floor will require 10 licensed practical nurses, two laboratory technicians and two care aides on a 24/7 basis as well as two unit clerks for 12 hours a day.
All migrants will be under guard and VIHA protection services staff will assist by guarding entrances and exits.
The coast guard has been tracking the ship's progress up the West Coast since July.
It was expected the passengers would be processed by Citizenship and Immigration Canada officials before being taken to two Vancouver-area jails to be housed.
The high commissioner of Sri Lanka said the ship is a human-smuggling operation linked to the Tamil Tigers, and that the captain of the ship, a man named “Vinod,” is a known member of the terrorist group.
“The captain has been a sea Tiger and a smuggler, who was involved in (arms) procurement,” said Chitranganee Wagiswara, the high commissioner, in Ottawa.
Wagiswara said the reports of terrorists aboard the ship came from “intelligence.”
She said the government should turn the ship away, even though other groups have said it contains refugees who are fleeing persecution.
“What we would like Canada to do is not accept these people, these illegal immigrants, because these are criminal elements that are trying to come into the country, and abusing the Canadian system,” she said.
But Tamil advocates in Canada cautioned against making an automatic link between the ethnic group with the terrorist organization.
“The Tamil minority within the island of Sri Lanka has been demonized and criminalized,” said Krisna Saravanamuttu, a spokesman for the National Council of Canadian Tamils.
“What I would encourage our federal government to do, is to treat these individuals with compassion, give them their due process, let (them) go through the system just like any other refugee in this country.”
Both NDP immigration critic Olivia Chow and Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff said the migrants have a legal right to be assessed as refugees.
“Every refugee claimant should be treated the same way, under Canadian law,” Chow said. “They have a right, and we have a right to examine them individually, and that's what we should do. Whether they arrive by boat, or by plane, they should have the same rights under the refugees law.”
Ignatieff said the migrants “have a right to have individual refugee determination.”
“These people have been on the high seas for I don't know how long . . . if they're found to have suspect or difficult pasts then that has to be independently established,” he told the Nunatsiaq News.
“If we find that they are security risks, then they have to be sent home. But in Canada, we do it one by one. And that's the way we ought to do it with this boat.”
Sharryn Aiken, associate dean of the Queen's University Faculty of Law and an expert on immigration and refugee law, said that even if members of the Tamil Tigers were aboard the ship, they may not be sent back to Sri Lanka.
“They may not be eligible for refugee protection but they may be eligible to remain in Canada because of a risk of torture upon return to Sri Lanka. And that's something that we have to balance. We balance the risk to Canada and the risk of return. But certainly Canada has an absolutely clear international legal obligation as well as domestic obligation in the Charter of Rights not to return anyone to where they're at risk of torture or other serious human rights abuses,” said Aiken.
“The best thing that Canada can do is promote a lasting peace in Sri Lanka, so people will no longer have to flee. And Canada's record in that regard has been abysmal. We've done very little to foster the cause of peace and reconciliation in Sri Lanka.”
The ship is the second in less than a year to arrive with Tamil refugees aboard.
Last October, a smaller cargo ship, the Ocean Lady, was intercepted by HMCS Regina and taken to Victoria, where 76 Tamils disembarked.
Many speculated that some of the men aboard the Ocean Lady were members of the Tamil Tigers, the paramilitary arm of the Tamil independence movement.
The migrants have since been released, pending the refugee claim process, and most are living in Toronto.
So far, none of them have been linked to the Tamil Tigers.