CTV News | Top Stories - Breaking News - Top News Headlines
Big profits for smugglers of Tamil migrants: Toews
Public Safety Minister Vic Toews says that the nearly 500 Sri Lankan migrants who came to Canada last Friday aboard a rusty cargo ship paid as much as $50,000 apiece for the trip.
"It's clear that this is part of a broader organized criminal enterprise," Toews said Monday, adding that "this was a very profitable undertaking, even if the boat is eventually seized."
Toews said it is unclear if each passenger paid the same fare. But he reiterated earlier statements that the ship may be part of a smuggling operation that is linked to the Tamil Tigers, which waged a bloody, decades-long battle for an independent state in Sri Lanka.
Toews said officials are still sorting out whether anyone aboard the ship is engaged in human trafficking or a member of the Tamil Tiger organization.
He also said the government will consider amending the current laws that govern the shipping industry to mimic those that govern airlines. Unlike ships, air carriers are required to ensure all passengers are travelling with proper documentation.
Meanwhile, detention review hearings began Monday for the migrants. While detention hearings for refugees are held in private, journalists are awaiting a board decision to allow them to attend these hearings. A decision is expected Tuesday.
The Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) said Monday it has completed an initial examination of the migrants and said a total of 492 were on the ship: 380 men, 63 women and 49 minors.
They have all claimed refugee status, and have been held in custody since they arrived last week.
The board must hold hearings within 48 hours of detention, but the board may be bogged down by the number of cases to review.
The first step will be identifying the migrants, said Lorne Waldman, a Toronto immigration lawyer whose firm will be involved in the process. Most will likely remain in custody after the first set of hearings, until officials determine whether they pose a security risk, he added.
"What will happen now is each of the migrants will have an opportunity to appear before an immigration judge and that judge will have to determine whether that person should be released into the public," Stephen Green, chair of the Canadian Bar Association, told CTV's Canada AM on Monday.
The judge will have to determine whether each immigrant is a danger to the public, whether there is a health concern, or whether they will have to reappear at a later date, Green said.
CBSA is doing a full investigation into each of the individuals aboard the ship to determine whether they have terrorist connections. If so, they would be kept in detention and eventually returned to Sri Lanka, Green said.
However, he urged Canadians to let the law take its course before making judgments.
"These are people making refugee claims and they fear for their lives, so they're not jumping the queue, they are in danger and they can't be sent back until they've had a full hearing to understand if there is any possibility of danger for them to return," Green said.
In letters released by the Canadian Tamil Congress late Monday, the migrants thanked the Canadian government and people.
"When we made our plea from the Pacific Ocean: 'We are civilians, please save us,' you did not hesitate to come and take us ashore and provide us with food, water and fruits," one translated letter said. "This has assured us with the safety of our lives."
Burial at sea
According to sources, living conditions were horrific onboard the ship, with several hundred passengers sharing one toilet, and as little as one litre of fresh water allotted for each passenger, per week.
Police have confirmed that one Tamil man died aboard the MV Sun Sea cargo ship while it was en route to Canada but not yet in Canadian waters.
The man, a 37-year-old, died about three weeks ago, according to the RCMP. He died in international waters and was buried at sea.
Police said there was no criminal intent involved in the death, and the man simply died of sickness that was untreatable at sea.
CTV's Janet Dirks said the man died on July 28.
"He was buried at sea, he was the father of a child, he had a wife -- they remain in Sri Lanka," Dirks said.
On Sunday, Toews released a statement saying that the RCMP would answer questions relating to the man's death.
Of the surviving passengers, Canadian authorities have said they are "pretty good" and that those taken to hospital have not been treated for any critical illnesses.
"They were maintaining that people were doing pretty well and their spirits were high," said Dirks.
"They were relieved to be in Canada, that there was even laughter on the boat, so it didn't seem like it was a terrible situation in terms of what they had discovered."
Dirks said that at least one elderly couple -- both 70-years old -- is confirmed to have travelled to Canada on board the MV Sun Sea, a detail that was previously unknown.
"We had seen photographs or images of young children, a baby, toddlers, but never older people. So now we know there is an elderly couple on board the ship and they survived," she said.
With files from The Canadian Press