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VANCOUVER (Reuters) - Canada vowed on Thursday to crack down on human smuggling from Asia in the wake of the arrival of two boats full of Tamils fleeing Sri Lanka, saying it expects more migrants to attempt the ocean journey.
The government denied it was backing away from its international treaty obligations to provide refuge to people fleeing persecution, but it said human smuggling rings were profiting from Canada's tradition of hospitality.
It outlined new legislation that includes tougher sentences for convicted smugglers and sets up new legal hurdles for migrants who use smuggling networks to reach Canada, even if their claims to be fleeing political persecution are deemed legitimate.
"Are these measures tough? Yes. In order to make the smugglers and fraudsters think twice they have to be," Public Safety Minister Vic Toews told reporters.
Officials said smuggling rings have identified Canada as an easy and profitable target destination, so the proposed laws were designed to disrupt their "business model" by reducing the incentive for fake political refugees to make the attempt.
The proposals need Parliament's approval, so whether they actually get enacted could depend on the fate of the minority Conservative government. Opposition parties, which have a majority of seats in the House of Commons, could force an election over the budget next winter and put all legislation on hold.
The opposition New Democrats have already said they do not like some of the measures in the immigration legislation.
Immigration officials say Canada receives thousands of refugee applications each year, many from people in overseas refugee camps. Nearly all migrants who reach Canada before requesting refugee status arrive by air or drive across the border from the United States.
Debate over whether the refugee system is too lax flared in August when an aging merchant ship, The Sun Sea, arrived on Canada's Pacific Coast from Thailand with nearly 500 Tamils, including women and children.
The Sun Sea landed less than a year after another ship, the Ocean Lady, arrived in the same area with 76 Tamil men. The refugees on both ships claimed they were fleeing persecution in Sri Lanka, a claim the Sri Lanka government denies.
The Ocean Lady served as the backdrop for the government's announcement on Thursday at a dock near Vancouver where it is impounded.
Government officials have said they expect that more Tamils, many waiting in Thailand or India, are planning to attempt similar journeys with some having already paid up to C$50,000 ($48,500) to secure a spot on a boat.
Immigration is not a major political issue in Canada as it is in the United States, but the government warned on Thursday the smuggling boats were eroding the public's support for welcoming new migrants.
The Canadian Tamil Congress complained the changes will only hurt people fleeing persecution, but Canadian officials said the two boats had actually sailed from countries where refugees could have sought protection.
Canada is believed to have one of the largest Tamil communities outside of India and Sri Lanka, many of them living in the Toronto area.
The government has previously warned some of the boat migrants could be members of the Tamil Tigers, a separatist group defeated by Sri Lanka in a bloody civil war. The Tigers are classified as a terrorist organization by Canada.
Among the proposed changes to the refugee law is a requirement that migrants who prove they are legitimate refugees, but who used smuggling networks to reach Canada, must return home after five years if they cannot show they are still threatened.
They would also be prohibited from becoming Canadian citizens or bringing in relatives to join them in Canada during those five years.
Editing by Peter Galloway