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Detention hearings begin for Tamil migrants
The first of 492 recently arrived Tamil migrants has appeared at a detention hearing in Vancouver, and will remain in custody until immigration authorities can verify her identity.
The young woman appeared at the hearing with her hands tied behind her back, wearing a sweatshirt and sweatpants. Her handcuffs were removed before the start of the proceedings, which were translated into Tamil.
Eric Purtzki, the woman's lawyer, told the hearing that his client made the ocean-crossing with her mother, father and brother, and that they have relatives in Toronto who could act as bondspersons.
She also arrived in Canada with her birth certificate and national identity card, he said.
But a lawyer for the Canada Border Services Agency, Ron Yamauchi, said those documents have not yet been authenticated, and the woman was ordered to remain in detention.
At least 78 detention reviews took place Tuesday. Of the women who had hearings, several presented identity cards from refugee camps, and all were told they would be sent back to a jail near Vancouver until their identities can be confirmed.
Such hearings are usually held in private. However, a member of the Immigration and Refugee Board ruled Tuesday that reporters would be permitted to cover this set of hearings on a case by case basis, provided they do not reveal the claimants' identities.
Yamauchi said the CBSA has briefly interviewed all 492 migrants who were on board the KV Sun Sea when it arrived at Canadian Forces Base Esquimalt, near Victoria, on Friday. The agency has also begun fingerprinting and photographing those who made the voyage.
He added that documents from the migrants will be analyzed by experts, and that the CBSA has assigned extra staff to help process the migrants.
"I submit we are taking every effort that we can to establish identities as quickly as possible," he told the hearing.
The KV Sun Sea is the second such ship to arrive in British Columbia since a long-running civil war in Sri Lanka between the central government and Tamil rebels came to a violent end last year.
The migrants -- which include 63 women and 49 minors -- said they faced mass murder, disappearances and extortion in their home country, according to an unsigned letter released by the Canadian Tamil Congress.
The ship's arrival has sparked debate in Ottawa, with the Conservatives and opposition parties weighing in on what the government's response should be.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Tuesday that Ottawa will take "whatever steps are necessary" to prevent further boatloads of migrants from arriving on Canadian shores.
Harper made the comments following an unrelated announcement in Mississauga, Ont., where he was asked about the ship's arrival.
"Canadians are pretty concerned when a whole boat of people comes -- not through any normal application process, not through any normal arrival channel -- and just simply lands," he said.
"This trend gives us some significant concern, and we'll take whatever steps are necessary going forward," he added. "We are responsible for the security of our borders, and the ability to welcome people, or not welcome people, when they come"
The government "will not hesitate to strengthen the laws" on human smuggling to discourage further ships from arriving in Canada, he said.
Public Safety Minister Vic Toews has called the ship "part of a broader criminal enterprise" that could be linked to the Tamil Tigers, which Ottawa has banned as a terrorist organization.
Responding to Toews, Liberal MP Marc Garneau said the Harper government should "lower the tone" of its rhetoric on the migrants, adding that there has been too much of a focus on whether the ocean-crossing was organized by a human smuggling ring, and whether some passengers could be terrorists.
Olivia Chow, the NDP's immigration critic, said Canada's response should address its foreign policy on Sri Lanka, a country that she said has fallen off the government's radar since the Tamil Tigers were defeated there.
"What motivated these people to take such a dangerous journey is the violence, insecurity, mass detention and human rights violations that have been widely reported by independent observers," Chow said.
Manjula Selvarajah, a member of the Canadian Tamil Congress, said her organization is asking for "the compassion of Canadians" to grant asylum to those from the KV Sun Sea who need it.
"If there is a criminal element or connections of that kind, I think they will be rejected and we have faith that the RCMP and other authorities will do what they need to do."
With files from The Canadian Press