Ottawa is vowing to curb illegal immigration by stopping asylum seekers before they set sail for Canada, as border officials in B.C. scramble to process hundreds of migrants who arrived aboard the MV Sun Sea.
Canadian intelligence should identify these ships before they leave their ports of origin, Public Safety Minister Vic Toews said in an interview Saturday, about 36 hours after nearly 500 illegal migrants were intercepted off the B.C. coast and brought to CFB Esquimalt.
"That, I believe, should be the real focus, rather than trying to deal with them after the fact."
Hours after the Thai-registered Sun Sea arrived on Friday, Mr. Toews said Canadian officials suspect the vessel is part of a human-smuggling operation run by the the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, though he offered no evidence to support this claim.
Mr. Toews, who contends other human smugglers are watching Canada's response closely, reiterated his concern on Saturday.
"The evidence ... suggests that it is the work of the Tamil Tigers, or LTTE," Mr. Toews said, though he didn't cite the source of the information.
The LTTE, known as the Tamil Tigers, is a banned terrorist organization and separatist group that lost a 26-year civil war in Sri Lanka last year. Minority Tamils, however, say they are persecuted by the Sri Lankan government.
The Canada Border Service Agency, whose team continues to inspect the MV Sun Sea with the RCMP, said the vessel was outfitted with sleeping quarters and a sanitation system. It was also stocked with food, including rice, dried fish and juice containers.
"It was relatively clean and organized. A system had been developed to dispose of waste and garbage. There were sleeping quarters onboard with hammocks," spokesman Rob Johnston said at a news conference.
Mr. Toews said the system was further evidence of a smuggling operation.
"The Sun Sea was modified in order to make this trip and maximize the number of persons, and of course the resulting profit," he told the Globe.
As of Saturday afternoon, border agents had processed more than 450 of the 490 migrants believed to be on board. More than 350 were men, 50 were women and 50 were children.
Some of the children were taken into the province's care, along with their mothers. Mr. Johnston declined to provide details.
"We do our best to not separate families," he said. "However, there may be circumstances where that's not possible to maintain. I can't go into any further detail than that."
Some asylum seekers have already been transferred to the province's correctional branch and transported to detention facilities, Mr. Johnston said. Two Vancouver-area jails have been set up to accommodate them.
Mr. Toews also confirmed the MV Sun Sea's route on Saturday, saying the vessel travelled between the Philippines and Japan on its route to British Columbia.
He said reports that it travelled around Central America were false, and he said the ship didn't attempt to enter Australia, as other reports suggested.
Last year, a ship carrying Tamil migrants arrived in B.C. All 76 Sri Lankan Tamils aboard the Ocean Lady, which arrived in October, were released after 60 days in detention, and all now await refugee hearings. Not one was declared ineligible to make a claim, despite expert testimony that the ship's captain was a well-known Tamil Tiger.
With a report from The Canadian Press