TORONTO – TORONTO (AP) — Canada's top security official said Monday he was getting regular briefings on a ship of asylum seekers from Sri Lanka that could be carrying terrorists.
Public Safety Minister Vic Toews said there was reason to believe members of Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, known as the Tamil Tigers, are on the Thai cargo ship headed for Canada. Toews declined to provide further details.
The MV Sun Sea is expected to reach the Pacific coast province of British Columbia as soon as this week. The U.S. Coast Guard also was monitoring the ship.
"I can assure you that we are concerned about who is on that ship and why they might be coming," Toews said at a luncheon hosted by the Economic Club of Toronto, where he singled out marine human smuggling as a top national security concern.
The Tamil Tigers have been outlawed in Canada as a terrorist group since 2006.
John Leeburn, a spokesman for the District of Maple Ridge outside Vancouver, said two local prisons — one for men and one for women — were preparing to make room for the refugees. Corrections officers and sheriffs at the prisons have been told to be ready for up to 500 Tamil migrants or refugees in the coming days, most of them men.
A local corrections union official, Dean Purdy, said the group would include about 60 women and 40 children. Purdy said the vessel is expected to arrive in Victoria on Vancouver Island later this week.
Toews said it is imperative that Canada prevent terrorist organizations from abusing the country's refugee system. He said the Tamil Tigers have used suicide bombings against civilians in Sri Lanka, as well as extortion and intimidation to raise funds within Canada's Tamil community. Canada is home to about 300,000 Tamils, one of the largest such populations outside Sri Lanka and India.
The Tigers fought a civil war for a quarter of a century seeking a state independent of the ruling Sinhalese majority in Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka's conflict ended in May 2009 after a massive government operation against the Tigers.
Last October, a ship carrying 76 Sri Lankan migrants was intercepted in Canadian waters after crossing the Pacific from Sri Lanka. The group on board the Ocean Lady claimed to be fleeing persecution.
But there were concerns some had links to the Tamil Tigers. The 76 Sri Lankan migrants from that ship have since been released and their refugee claims will be being processed over the next two years.
"It's important to send a message that Canada should not be viewed as an easy entry into North America and that we are very concerned about security issues," Toews said.
"The problem of human smuggling and illegal migration is a serious one, and the abuse of our immigration system is something that our government will not tolerate."
Associated Press writer Jeremy Hainsworth in Vancouver, British Columbia, contributed to this report.