Hundreds of Tamil migrants arrive at B.C. base
Just hours after the cargo ship MV Sun Sea ended its three-month voyage at CFB Esquimalt near Victoria, the nearly 500 migrants aboard have begun their next journey: through the Canadian legal system.
At a press conference Friday afternoon, the director of enforcement with the Canada Border Services Agency told reporters that all the people who arrived on the ship will undergo a preliminary examination over the course of the next 48-72 hours.
"The CBSA's operational team is ready to process the arrival of the vessel and its passengers in accordance with Canadian law," Rob Johnston said, explaining that the procedure involves a full examination, the taking of fingerprints and photographs and security and criminal checks.
From there, Johnston said, decisions of whether to accommodate or detain individuals will be made on a case-by-case basis.
"(Those) deemed to be a security risk, a danger to the public, whose identity cannot be determined and those who CBSA believes will not appear for subsequent processing if released," can expect to be detained, Johnston said.
Those who are released will be required to report to Canada Border Service Agency officials at regular intervals.
When pressed for any details of the boarding, the people on the vessel, or the conditions in which they have been living, officials insisted it was still too early to pass on any reliable information.
"As it becomes available, information that can be shared publicly will be released," Johnston told reporters.
When pressed, Department of Defence spokesperson Capt. Dermot Mulholland said the ship's crew complied on first contact.
"The scene was very calm," Mulholland said. "They were able to understand our orders and were compliant."
As for the ship itself, Mulholland said it was in good working order.
"I can tell you that the Navy navigational and safety team that went on board found the vessel to be mechanically sound and therefore had very little difficulty in safely piloting the vessel into Esquimalt harbor."
Earlier Friday, video shot from a helicopter hovering over Canadian Forces Base Esquimalt showed security personnel escorting passengers from the ship to a number of white tents on the nearby tarmac. At least one person from the vessel was wheeled off on a stretcher.
For weeks, federal authorities had been tracking the MV Sun Sea due to reports that the vessel was bound for Canada carrying Sri Lankan asylum seekers intermixed with human smugglers, and members of a Tamil group that Ottawa has banned.
On Thursday evening, RCMP and Canadian Border Service Agency officers boarded the ship off the coast of British Columbia after it entered Canadian territorial waters.
They guided it to CFB Esquimalt just after 6 a.m. PT Friday morning, accompanied by a number of Canadian security vessels. Video showed at least 10 Canadian security personnel standing on the ship's otherwise empty deck as it approached.
Members of the Canadian Tamil community had gathered on shore.
"I'm quite surprised at the size of the ship," said Gary Anandasangaree, a lawyer with the Canadian Tamil Congress.
"I was expecting it to be much larger given the number of people," he said. "It clearly gives us an idea of the type of conditions that could have been inside. Very cramped, given the size."
The cargo ship is the second such vessel to make its way to Canada, following the end of a lengthy civil war in Sri Lanka. The first ship was the Ocean Lady, which brought 76 Tamil migrants to Canada last October.
At a press conference on Friday afternoon, Public Safety Minister Vic Toews reiterated that the 490 people onboard the MV Sun Sea included "suspected human smugglers and terrorists" -- presumably members of the Tamil Tigers, which Ottawa considers a terrorist group.
"This arrival resulted from decisions that were made across the Pacific and as a result of the choices of the crew over the previous weeks and months," he said. "Human smuggling is despicable crime and any attempted abuses of our nation's generosity for financial gain are utterly unacceptable."
Supporters say the migrants should not be prejudged.
"They made it to our shore asking for freedom, asking for a second life," said David Poopalapillai, a spokesperson for the Canadian Tamil Congress. "I would say for them to come to Canada is a second birth."
A "large number" of children are believed to be aboard the ship, according to a lawyer who has spoken with the migrants' families.
Toews said that Ottawa hopes to keep further ships from arriving on Canadian shores by finding ways to discourage human smuggling.
The migrants will be processed under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, and the RCMP will conduct "a full investigation," he said.
There have been reports that several passengers contracted tuberculosis during the voyage, and that one person may have died.
Ambulances were on the scene as passengers disembarked from the ship. And a ward has been re-opened at Victoria General Hospital with 75 to 100 beds to treat ill passengers.
Those found to have a communicable disease such as tuberculosis will be quarantined, while passengers with other health problems will be treated and released back into custody.
"Health officials here say that they're in a pandemic-plan mode," Janet Dirks said from Esquimalt. "They're prepared for the worst-case scenario but hoping for the best."
The migrants will eventually be taken to a correctional facility in Maple Ridge, B.C., and housed there while their refugee claims are processed.
Under Canada's "international obligations" and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, everyone onboard the ship who is deemed an eligible asylum seeker is entitled to a refugee hearing, immigration lawyer Max Berger said. That process takes 18 months on average.
Former Canadian ambassador James Bissett said the arrival of MV Sun Sea is a sign that Canada has become "the target of choice for human smuggling" because of Ottawa's "wide open" asylum system.
"The ship is dramatic and it attracts attention, but the fact is in 2008 we had 37,000 asylum seekers arrive here," he told CTV News Channel on Friday. "That's to say they're coming in at the rate of around 3,000 a month and many of them are smuggled in by international criminal organizations."
When the Ocean Lady arrived last year, requesting refugee status for those onboard, the men were detained. Twenty-five of them were eventually singled out for possibly having ties to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a group that was defeated in the Sri Lankan civil war last year and is considered a terrorist organization by Ottawa.
Their lawyers were told the men would face secret hearings to as Canadian authorities sought to keep them incarcerated. However, the Canada Border Services Agency stopped pursuing the hearings shortly before the deadline to present evidence in the case, and released the group.
With files from CTV's Janet Dirks and The Canadian Press