VANCOUVER (Reuters) - Canadian authorities prepared on Thursday to board a cargo ship that may be carrying as many 500 people thought to be Tamil migrants who have fled Sri Lanka in a bid to enter Canada as refugees.
Government officials have warned that the boat off Canada's Pacific Coast could be a security threat, but a former head of the country's refugee screening system says the warnings are an overreaction.
If confirmed to be carrying Tamil migrants, it would be the second vessel filled with people from war-torn Sri Lanka in less than a year to reach Canadian shores after a perilous voyage across two oceans.
A flotilla of police and military boats left a naval base near Victoria, British Columbia, on Thursday to meet the ship, the M.V. Sun Sea. It is expected to be brought to the naval base either on Thursday or Friday. The passengers will be taken into custody there.
Hospitals in the Victoria area have been warned to be prepared treat people who may have taken ill on the ship's long voyage across the Indian and Pacific oceans, and a jail near Vancouver is being prepared to hold the migrants.
Security officials have vowed to take a hard line with the ship's crew and passengers, warning it is operated by human smugglers and that some of the passengers may be members of Tamil Tiger militant group, which Canada has declared a terrorist organization.
"We will not allow Canada to become an easy target for people who prey on other people through human smuggling or human trafficking," Public Safety Minister Vic Toews told reporters late on Wednesday.
Canada gets thousands of requests for refugee asylum each year with little fanfare, but the government gets upset when they arrive as boat people, said Peter Showler, a former chairman of the Immigration and Refugee Board.
"Canada has a long history of linking boats and refugees and histrionic reactions," said Showler, who now heads the Refugee Forum at the University of Ottawa's Law School.
Showler criticized officials for focusing on whether the ship was operated by human smugglers instead on whether the passengers might be legitimate refugees claimants trying to escape persecution in Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka's ambassador to Canada told interviewers on Thursday that her government believes the ship was being operated by organized groups linked to the Tamil Tigers, who were defeated last year by government troops to end a bloody 25-year war in the island nation.
The Sri Lanka government has been at odds with the United Nations, which is investigating allegations that thousands of civilians died at the end of the war. The government denies the allegations. There are also claims that the Tamil Tigers used civilians as human shields.
Tamil groups in Canada, which have rallied to help the migrants, have accused Sri Lanka of saying the migrants are linked to the Tamil Tigers in an effort to make their refugee bids more difficult.
Reporting Allan Dowd, Editing by Peter Galloway