VANCOUVER, British Columbia – VANCOUVER, British Columbia (AP) — Hundreds of Tamil asylum seekers from war-ravaged Sri Lanka spent a grueling three months at sea in a cramped, ramshackle cargo ship but arrived in fairly good condition, Canadian officials said Saturday.
The ship, carrying at least 450 refugees, was modified in order to maximize profits for a human smuggling operation likely organized by the Tamil Tigers, Canada's top security official said.
The Thai-flagged MV Sun Sea docked Friday near British Columbia's capital of Victoria on Vancouver Island, 47 miles (75 kilometers) east of Vancouver.
Canadian officials said some refugees were nauseous and dehydrated but were mostly in good spirits.
"The people were in fairly good health," Canadian Border Services executive director Rob Johnston said. "They were very cooperative. They were communicative. ... I personally did not see anybody who looked like they had been through a very harrowing experience."
A total of 450 migrants had been processed since the ship docked Friday, Johnston said, who added the conditions aboard ship were better than officials had feared. He said there were hammocks and eating areas, and that the women and children were separated from the men.
He said more than 350 men, 50 women, and 50 children were onboard. The government had previously said 490 were onboard.
"The vessel was in much better shape than expected, it was relatively clean and organized. A system had been developed to dispose of waste and garbage," he said.
Johnston said they appeared to have been well fed and had adequate water.
Royal Canadian Mounted Police Insp. Tracey Rook also said they were surprised by how good the migrants looked considering how long they were at sea.
"They were not like how you may expect after being at sea for several months," she said. "Their clothing was in good condition and they had access to food and water en route."
Public Safety Minister Vic Toews said the vessel was extensively renovated so that it could carry as many people as possible. He called it the work of a sophisticated criminal network — likely the Tamil Tigers — an organization Canada labeled a terrorist group in 2006
"This isn't any old sailing boat," Toews told CTV television. "The evidence continues to suggest that this is the work of a criminal enterprise."
"The Sun Sea itself was modified in order to maximize the number of persons and increase the profits in that way. For example it was modified with a sanitation system that would never have been installed in a vessel of this size," Toews said.
The Tamil Tigers, also known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, sought an independent state, claiming decades of discrimination by Sri Lanka's Sinhalese majority. The conflict killed more than 80,000 people and ended after a massive government operation against the Tigers.
While the conflict ended in May 2009, Tamil leaders in Canada say the ethnic Tamil minority still faces persecution, which is why they are seeking asylum in Canada. The United Nations and some non-governmental organizations have reported people in Sri Lanka are still being abused.
Canada is home to about 300,000 Tamils, the largest Tamil community outside Sri Lanka and India.
Toews has said the Tigers have used suicide bombings against civilians in Sri Lanka, as well as extortion and intimidation to raise funds within Canada's Tamil community.
Canadian officials say they are trying to determine whether any of the people on the vessel are members of the Tigers. Officials said the investigation is still in its early stages.
Chitranganee Wagiswara, Sri Lanka's high commissioner to Canada, has said the ship's captain, a man named "Vinod," is a known Tiger and smuggled arms for the group. She believes that since the civil war is over, the Tigers might be trying to regroup in Canada, a country that has historically been a large source of their fundraising.
Toews believes more ships are on the way.
"There's been a concerted effort by an organized group to deliberately take advantage of our system to come to Canada," he said.
Gary Anandasangaree, a lawyer with the Canadian Tamil Congress, said the horrors of war and the terrors of the voyage will undoubtedly have left many of the refugees with post-traumatic stress disorder, which will be aggravated by claims by the Canadian government that some of these migrants may be terrorists.
But he said all of the migrants have disembarked and they're safe, have had a warm meal and a proper shower.
"From the reports I've seen, they're relatively healthy. They're in better shape than I imagined," he said.
Anandasangaree hoped he would be able to start meeting with the immigrants later Saturday. He said more than 100 Canadian Tamil families have contacted his organization, believing family members may have come off the boat.
The Sun Sea reportedly approached Australia a few months ago but was either turned away or feared it wouldn't be allowed to dock and sailed toward Canada.
The ship entered Canadian waters and was boarded by security officials late Thursday and brought to the military port on Vancouver Island. As a signatory to the UN Convention on Refugees, Canada must process all refugee claimants who manage to reach Canadian soil.
Dean Purdy, a Canadian jail union spokesman, said the asylum seekers were being transferred Saturday morning from dockside to a Vancouver Island jail. He said the migrants will be moved to prisons in Maple Ridge, 28 miles (45 kilometers) outside the city of Vancouver on Canada's mainland, in the coming days. Purdy said the prisons are already overcrowded.
Canadian immigration lawyer Lorne Waldman said detention reviews are expected to begin in Vancouver on Monday for the children on the boat. Detention reviews are the first part of the refugee claim process in Canada.
British Columbia's children's ministry has taken custody of some of the children
Detention reviews for the adults are expected to take place in Maple Ridge.
Gillies and Associated Press writer Charmaine Noronha reported from Toronto.