VANCOUVER, British Columbia – VANCOUVER, British Columbia (AP) — A small cargo ship crammed with hundreds of Tamil asylum seekers from Sri Lanka docked at a Canadian navy base on Friday after a grueling three-month journey.
Public Safety Minister Vic Toews has said 490 are onboard and said the vessel MV Sun Sea has declared them to be refugees. But he said the government has concerns that there may be members of the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or Tamil Tigers, on board. Canada has labeled the Tamil Tigers as a terrorist group since 2006.
Gary Anandasangaree, a lawyer with the Canadian Tamil Congress, was on the scene as the boat arrived. Anandasangaree said he can't believe how small the 194-foot (59-meter) ship is considering how many people are onboard.
"It clearly gives us an idea of the type of conditions that could have been inside. Very cramped, given the size," Anandasangaree said. Children also were believed to be on board.
The MV Sun Sea was boarded by Canadian security officials late Thursday and brought to a seaside military facility where authorities can process the people Friday. The rusty boat is being held at Canadian Forces Base Esquimalt on the outskirts of British Columbia's provincial capital of Victoria on Vancouver Island, 47 miles (75 kilometers) east of Vancouver on the Canadian mainland.
The boat 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. Canada is home to about 300,000 Tamils, the largest such population outside Sri Lanka and India.
Buses are expected to take many of the boat passengers to two Vancouver-area jails while officials sort out who are legitimate refugees and who are human smugglers or terrorists.
Toews, the public safety minister, said all the people onboard will be processed according to their claims and if they are not found to be valid they won't be treated as refugees. He said some are human smugglers and terrorists.
The Tamil Tigers fought a civil war for a quarter of a century in Sri Lanka seeking an independent state for ethnic minority Tamils, claiming decades of discrimination by the Sinhalese majority. The conflict, which killed more than 80,000 people, ended in May 2009 after a massive government operation against the Tigers.
Anandasangaree said even if some of those on board are Tamil Tigers, they would have a legitimate refugee case in Canada. He said they could face torture or death if returned to Sri Lanka. He added there is a need to distinguish between those who are refugees and those who would take advantage of refugees.
"I think the government may be painting everyone with the same brush. That's a very dangerous situation," Anandasangaree said.
Chitranganee Wagiswara, Sri Lanka's high commissioner to Canada, has said Canada should not accept the Tamils' claims for refugee status and said the ship is part of a human smuggling operation linked to the Tamil 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.
All of the men were immediately detained in jails around the Vancouver area, but most were let go within weeks or months later and only one remained in custody on suspicion of being a Tiger. By this past spring, he, too, had been released.
As a signatory to the UN Convention on Refugees, Canada must process all refugee claimants who manage to reach Canadian soil. Those on the vessel will be screened first by Canada Border Services officials. If any are detained or make refugee applications, they would be then handed over to Canada's Immigration and Refugee Board.
The Canadian government is worried it is becoming a target of human smugglers. Toews has vowed Canada would look at all available options to strengthen Canadian laws to address what he called an "unacceptable abuse of international law and Canadian generosity."
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.