Canada needs hard stance on migrant ship: minister
The Canadian government said a ship carrying 490 migrants that arrived in B.C. Friday is part of an international human smuggling ring, and that more ships will be on the way soon unless the country takes a hard stance.
The MV Sun Sea arrived at Canadian Forces Base Esquimalt Esquimalt near Victoria, just after dawn morning as the ship was towed into port. It is believed many of the people on board are from Sri Lanka and had sailed for more than three months across the Pacific to reach Canada.
On Thursday evening, RCMP and Canadian Border Service Agency officers boarded the ship off the coast of British Columbia after it entered Canadian territorial waters. Some of the passengers were taken to Victoria General Hospital for treatment on Friday.
At a press conference only hours after the boat docked, Public Safety Minister Vic Toews said some of the passengers are "human smugglers and terrorists," and pledged that Ottawa would take a strong stance against any criminal on board.
"We want to send a clear message to people who may be currently involved and those who might be watching to know that this is an activity that Canada does not encourage," Toews said.
Two others ships are reportedly waiting to set sail for Canada depending on the outcome of the MV Sun Sea's arrival.
"I don't believe this is an isolated, independent act," Toews said, adding that the safety and security of Canadians is his number one priority.
He added that Canada needs "to look at our laws to see if they are sufficiently strong."
He did not elaborate on what changes the government could make, but indicated Ottawa's focus will be on deterring human smugglers from plying their trade.
The minister said all of the passengers on board would be processed by border officials, as set out by Canadian law. Toews said Canada has "very generous" immigration laws, but it won't allow criminals or terrorists to hijack the system.
"We cannot allow Canada to be exploited for the generosity it offers," he said.
As passengers departed from the boat they were given white masks and jackets. Several were wheeled away on stretchers to waiting ambulances. By mid-afternoon, many had been transported to Vancouver General Hospital for medical attention.
Officials from the Canada Border Services Agency are now trying to weed out those believed to be human smugglers and terrorists from legitimate refugee claimants.
Each migrant was to be fingerprinted and a criminal records check done, said Rob Johnston, the spokesman for the Canada Border Services Agency.
The process would take two to three days.
CBSA officers will "rummage" the ship, looking for any evidence of criminal activity, Johnston said, but he declined to say whether any weapons had been found.
Johnston and others at a technical briefing refused to describe the living conditions aboard. But Toews said earlier that given the relatively small size of the vessel and the huge number of people involved, it's obvious it wasn't a comfortable voyage.
Fleeing to Canada
The cargo ship is the second such vessel to make its way to Canada, following the end of a lengthy civil war in Sri Lanka. The first ship was the Ocean Lady, which brought 76 Tamil migrants to Canada last October.
A "large number" of children are believed to be aboard the ship according to a lawyer who has spoken with the migrants' families. Supporters say the migrants should not be prejudged.
"Canada has a strong reputation for upholding democracy and the rule of law and these are not there in Sri Lanka," Krisna Saravanamuttu, a member of the National Council of Canadian Tamils, told CTV News Channel.
"These individuals are escaping a country that has been heavily criticized for its utter disregard for human rights. I think it's important to treat these refugees with respect."
There are unconfirmed reports one person has died on the journey and several migrants have contracted Tuberculosis.
Diseases specialist Dr. Neil Rau told Canada AM that Tuberculosis is a common disease in Sri Lanka and takes a number of months to treat.
"Once diagnosed, they have to be followed carefully by public health nurses and doctors so they don't go off the wagon. If people don't take the six or nine month course of treatment they can get the resistant strains developing and it gets harder and harder to treat them."
Rau said it's likely only a small number of the migrants would have contracted TB.
"The challenge for border officials and health officials is to pick out those who are actually contagious," Rau said.
Passengers found to have a communicable disease will be quarantined, while people with other health problems will be treated and released back into custody.
The migrants will eventually be taken to a correctional facility in Maple Ridge, B.C., and housed there while their refugee claims are processed.
Under Canada's "international obligations" and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, everyone onboard the ship who is deemed an eligible asylum seeker is entitled to a refugee hearing, immigration lawyer Max Berger said. That process takes 18 months on average.
Former Canadian ambassador James Bissett said the arrival of MV Sun Sea is a sign that Canada has become "the target of choice for human smuggling" because of Ottawa's "wide open" asylum system.
"The ship is dramatic and it attracts attention, but the fact is in 2008 we had 37,000 asylum seekers arrive here," he told CTV News Channel on Friday. "That's to say they're coming in at the rate of around 3,000 a month and many of them are smuggled in by international criminal organizations."
While news websites carrying the migrants' story have been assailed by readers questioning why the ship wasn't simply turned back, Toews said his ministry was advised to allow the ship to enter Canadian waters so those aboard could be dealt with here.
Foreign Affairs spokesman Michael Walma said Canadian law actually prevents Canadians from boarding vessels in international waters under these circumstances.
The B.C. Civil Liberties Association called on the Canadian government to ensure the human rights of the migrants is respected.
"Canada must also ensure that the mistakes made in the handling of many of the Tamil migrants arriving on the MV Ocean Lady last October not be repeated," the watchdog organization said in a release.
Last October, a ship carrying 76 Sri Lankan asylum seekers arrived off of Vancouver Island. Twenty-five were detained before even being given a chance to present any evidence supporting their refugee claim.
All of those on board the Ocean Lady claimed refugee status.
Originally jailed, most were soon released by Canadian officials who said around one-third had links to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a banned terrorist organization and separatist group that lost a 26-year civil war last year.
The agency wanted secret hearings to argue for their continued incarceration, but those hearings were abandoned and the agency never produced any evidence to support their suspicions.
"Given that the government had no evidence showing that the refugees posed any danger to Canada, it is incredible that they were held in detention for months," BCCLA President Robert Holmes said.
"Canada needs to ensure that the migrants now landing in British Columbia are not subjected to the same unjustified detentions."
With files from The Canadian Press