TORONTO – TORONTO (AP) — Canadian authorities said Wednesday that they will intercept a ship of asylum seekers from Sri Lanka before it reaches the coast because the passengers may include people Canada considers terrorists.
The ship is reported to be within 200 miles (322 kilometers) of Canada's Pacific coast province of British Columbia, said Chris McCluskey, a spokesman for Public Safety Minister Vic Toews.
He said the ship would be intercepted.
Canada is home to about 300,000 Tamils, one of the largest such populations outside Sri Lanka and India. And while the nation has the reputation of being receptive to refugees, it has become more vigilant against unwanted immigrants, including criminals and extremists.
The Thai cargo ship MV Sun Sea is expected to reach the Strait of Juan de Fuca off Vancouver island late Thursday or early Friday. Between 400 and 500 people are believed to be on board.
"A vessel is approaching the shores of British Columbia, and is within the 200 mile limit. We will ensure that everyone on board is appropriately scrutinized to protect the safety and security of Canadians," McCluskey said in a statement e-mailed to The Associated Press.
Toews had said Monday there was reason to believe members of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or Tamil Tigers, are on board. Canada has labeled the Tamil Tigers as a terrorist group since 2006.
Toews 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.
The Tigers fought a civil war for a quarter of a century in Sri Lanka seeking a state independent of the ruling Sinhalese majority. The Sri Lankan conflict ended in May 2009 after a massive government operation against the Tigers.
The MV Sun Sea reportedly approached Australia a few months ago but was turned away or feared it wouldn't be allowed to dock and turned toward Canada.
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.
Canada is concerned it is becoming a target for human smuggling.
"Human smuggling and human trafficking are despicable crimes. They are both illegal and dangerous," McCluskey said. "While our government believes in offering protection to genuine refugees, it is imperative that we prevent supporters and members of a criminal or terrorist organization from abusing Canada's refugee system."
Vancouver-based immigration lawyer Dan McLeod said he's been asked by legal aid to act as duty counsel for some of the migrants to guide them through the initial stages of the process if they make refugee claims.
Representatives for the Canadian Tamil Congress are also on their way to Vancouver to assist the Tamils with translation services, lawyer referrals or any other help they require.