VANCOUVER (Reuters) - A cargo ship believed carrying as many as 200 Tamil migrants attempting to reach Canada from Sri Lanka has been located off the Pacific Coast, Canadian media reported on Wednesday.
Canadian officials refused to comment on the ship’s location, but reports quoting unnamed government sources said MV Sun Sea was about 200 nautical miles offshore.
Authorities are expected to take control of the vessel once it reaches Canadian waters and escort it to Vancouver Island, where the passengers would be taken into custody.
Canadian and U.S. authorities believe the ship is trying to reach Canada, just as another ship carrying migrants from Sri Lanka did in October 2009.
The U.S. Coast Guard refused to comment on the ship’s location, saying it was a Canadian-led operation.
Tamil representatives in Canada have said they believe the Sun Sea has about 200 people on board. CTV Television said one had died during the crossing.
The issue has created a quandary for the Canadian government, which has treaty agreements to protect people fleeing persecution but also wants to prevent large-scale human smuggling of Tamils leaving Sri Lanka.
“Those responsible for migrant smuggling will be pursued, investigated and prosecuted to the full extent of Canadian law and in accordance with the provisions of international conventions and protocols,” the Foreign Affairs Department said on Wednesday.
There is also concern that some of those on board may be members of the Tamil Tigers, which fought an independence war against Sri Lankan government forces. Canada considers the group an illegal terrorist organization.
Similar accusations were made about migrants on the ship that arrived on the West Coast last October. All 76 people on board were eventually allowed to make refugee claims in Canada, which are still being processed.
The Canadian Tamil Congress says the people on the Sun Sea are likely civilians fleeing persecution and says the Sri Lankan government claims they are Tamil Tigers to make their refugee claims in Canada more difficult.
Reporting Allan Dowd; editing by Rob Wilson