Migrant ship docks in Canada, refugee debate flares

Fri Aug 13, 2010 5:58pm EDT
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By Allan Dowd

VANCOUVER (Reuters) - Canadian authorities unloaded a cramped cargo ship on Friday of nearly 500 Tamil asylum seekers from Sri Lanka whose arrival has sparked a national debate over the country's immigration and refugee laws.

The sun was just rising on Pacific Coast when MV Sun Sea sailed under escort into a Canadian Navy base near Victoria, British Columbia, on Vancouver Island, and docked next to a makeshift camp set up to process the men, women and children on board.

Officials said the ship was in good condition, but they would not describe the accommodations of the estimated 490 people who may have spent more than two months housed in the cargo hold of the 59-meter-long (194-foot-long) vessel.

Several people were taken to a Victoria hospital to be checked out, but officials were not aware of any major medical problems. The crew was "compliant" when navy personnel boarded the ship on Thursday, the military said.

Public Safety Minister Vic Toews warned that Canada will be taking a tough line with the Thai-owned ship, which he said was believed to be carrying terrorists and may be part of a larger, international human smuggling operation.

"Canada has very generous refugee laws, and my concern is that individuals not take advantage of the existing laws in order to further criminal or terrorist activities," Toews told a news conference.

The people on the Sun Sea are believed to be Tamils fleeing Sri Lanka, but Canada fears some are members of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, which fought a bloody independence war that was crushed last year.

The military wing of the Tamil independence movement is considered a terrorist organization by Ottawa, which would make it illegal for members or supporters of the Tamil Tigers to immigrate to Canada.   Continued...

<p>Canadian Border officials and police stand the deck of the MV Sun Sea (C) and the dock as it is guided into Canadian Forces Base Esquimalt with an estimated 490 suspected Tamil migrants on board in Colwood, British Columbia on Vancouver Island August 13, 2010. Authorities intercepted and boarded the ship after it entered Canadian waters. REUTERS/Andy Clark</p>