Preparations are being made to feed and house an unknown number of women and children onboard the Sri Lankan migrant ship approaching B.C.'s shores.

How many are among the reported 490 asylum-seekers onboard the MV Sun Sea is not yet known, but mothers and their children are expected to be housed together at an undisclosed secure facility.

Immigrant and refugee rights groups say it's important to keep the families united.

"Think of a child who's just fled a refugee camp, who's been on a boat for...months, who's suffered so much," Harsha Walia of No One is Illegal told CTV News.

But she says a detention centre isn't the right place for the women and children.

"These are prisons. These are people who will be denied their rights, they will be incarcerated, their physical liberty will be denied to them."

Canada's former high commissioner to Sri Lanka believes that bringing woman and children could be a calculated decision on the part of the people organizing the Sun Sea's voyage.

"They probably deliberately brought a lot of women and children along to elicit sympathy. If they were all young healthy men, public relations-wise, we'd say they'd all have to wait their turn," Martin Collacott said.

In 1999, 600 people from China's Fujian province arrived in B.C. Seventy-five were children -- the youngest was eight years old.

They were housed with their mothers in military bases in Esquimalt before being brought to Vancouver.

After immigration hearings, some were placed in the care of the ministry of children and family development and others at a seniors' centre in Burnaby.

Along with food and shelter, the Chinese migrant children were also offered English classes. The estimated cost for each child at the time was more than $8,000 a month.

With a report from CTV British Columbia's Bal Brach