VANCOUVER — A cargo ship believed to be carrying hundreds of Tamils from Sri Lanka continued sailing toward the British Columbia coast Wednesday, crossing into an economic zone that extends 370 kilometres from Canada’s shores, and bringing with it a potential flood of refugee claims.
Canadian officials have been on the lookout for the MV Sun Sea after a report in a Sri Lankan newspaper last month said the ship was headed this way after abandoning a plan to dock in Australia.
Now its arrival in Canada appears imminent.
A government source told The Canadian Press the ship entered Canada’s exclusive economic zone — an area that extends beyond this country’s territorial waters — on Wednesday afternoon and was expected to arrive somewhere in the Victoria region, although it wasn’t clear when.
The source said officials weren’t sure exactly how many people are on board the ship, but suggested it could be close to 300.
That would dwarf the number of people who arrived on a similar ship last October, when 76 Tamils landed in Victoria and subsequently applied for refugee status.
Every government agency connected to the ship’s arrival, including the coast guard, the RCMP and Canada Border Services Agency, referred calls to the Department of Foreign Affairs, which had nothing to say about the vessel on Wednesday.
Two Vancouver-area jails have been told to make room for at least 200 additional inmates.
Vancouver-based immigration lawyer Dan McLeod said legal aid officials have asked him to act as duty counsel for some of the migrants once they arrive.
McLeod said the case will first be handled by the Canada Border Services Agency, which will confirm the migrants’ identities and determine whether any are inadmissible.
The cases will then be handed over to the Immigration and Refugee Board, which will decide whether to release any of the migrants or detain them. For any who are held in custody, detention hearings will be held at regular intervals.
McLeod, who represents one of the Tamils who arrived in B.C. last year, said at this point Canada has little choice but to allow the ship to land and take a look at any refugee claims that are made.
“When a person arrives at a Canadian port of entry, that person is entitled to make an application for refugee status, and basically all they have to do is say something along the lines of ’refugee’ or ’protection’ or ’fear of persecution’ in their home country,” said McLeod.
“Once they are in Canadian waters, they can’t be turned back. Legally, we cannot turn them away, and it would be a very bad precedent for Canada to do so.”
When the 76 migrants arrived last October, some were detained over concerns they may be linked to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the military arm of the Tamil separatist movement and a banned terrorist organization in Canada.
But they have all since been released. Most were able to stay with relatives or acquaintances already in Canada, and some have already received work permits and have found jobs.
McLeod notes none have been linked to the Tamil Tigers.
The Canadian Tamil Congress said it was sending representatives to Vancouver to assist the migrants with translation services, legal referrals or any other help they need.
Spokeswoman Manjula Selvarajah said it’s important refugee officials — and Canadians — don’t prejudge the migrants simply because they are Tamils.
“There has been a lot of innuendo about people being on there that are a threat to Canadian security,” Selvarajah said in an interview.
“However, one of the things we have to be careful about is some of the things that we’re hearing comes from sources that are linked to the Sri Lankan government, who have a poor track record when it comes to human rights, accountability, transparency.”
Selvarajah noted none of the Tamils who arrived in 2009 have been linked to the Tigers and all have been released.
Media reports have already been rife with suggestions some of the MV Sun Sea’s passengers could be linked to Tamil Tigers.
The initial media report out of Sri Lanka made that allegation, as did the Sri Lankan government.
“This is definitely not a humanitarian exercise, it is a human smuggling operation linked to the Tamil Tigers,” Chitranganee Wagiswara, Sri Lanka’s high commissioner to Canada, said in an interview.
“The Canadian government should not accept their claims for refugee status. It’s up to the Canadian government to decide, but that (potential links to the Tigers) is an issue that Canada is aware of and should be cautious.”
Wagiswara said while the Sri Lankan military defeated the Tigers last year after a bloody 26-year civil war, the group continues illegal activity including fundraising and human smuggling.
An estimated 300,000 civilians were detained in camps for months following the government’s defeat of Tamil Tigers rebels in mid 2009, and about 33,000 remain in those camps, although the Sri Lankan government says they are allowed to freely move out and come back.
A Sri Lankan government-appointed commission is looking into Sri Lanka’s civil war with hearings that began Wednesday, but human rights groups have said the commission is aimed at deflecting calls for an international probe of alleged war crimes.
— With files from Sunny Dhillon in Vancouver, Jim Bronskill in Ottawa and The Associated Press