- Canada - Political asylum - Sri Lanka
Ship carrying Tamil asylum seekers from Sri Lanka docks in Vancouver
A cargo ship carrying almost 500 ethnic Tamil asylum seekers from Sri Lanka docked in the Canadian city of Vancouver on Friday. Canadian authorities vowed to determine whether the migrants included members of the vanquished Tamil Tiger rebel group.
AFP - Hundreds of Tamils seeking asylum from Sri Lanka sailed into Canada on Friday under the scrutiny of authorities, who vowed to screen out Tiger rebels after charges that the country is too welcoming.
After three months on the Pacific, a navy frigate escorted the shabby, Thai-flagged MV Sun Sea cargo ship onto Vancouver Island. Authorities brought out the 490 migrants one by one, shielding them from view with black umbrellas.
Buses with blacked-out windows transported the 490 migrants inland, as armed soldiers stood guard. Rob Johnston of the Canada Border Services Agency said it would take up two to three days to hold initial interviews with all of them.
The ship's progress has been monitored for weeks, triggering a furor in Canada over whether the boat migrants were jumping the queue while thousands of other applicants await their turn.
"Our goal is to ensure that our refugee system is not being hijacked by criminals or terrorists," Public Security Minister Vic Toews told reporters.
He vowed that Canada, known for some of the world's most welcoming asylum policies, would not allow itself to be a target for human smugglers. Toews also said the conservative government was considering legislation.
"It did not come to Canada by accident," Toews said of the boat. "We believe there are others who are watching this particular situation to determine the reaction of Canadian authorities."
Keith Martin, an opposition Liberal lawmaker who represents the area where the Sun Sea docked, said his office has been deluged with calls from angry constituents who do not want the Tamils taken in.
Liberal Party leader Michael Ignatieff told reporters that if the migrants turn out not to be legitimate refugees, "they must be sent home -- but in Canada, we do it one by one, that's the way we do it."
The ship had originally intended to go to Australia before being deterred and heading to Canada, which has a politically active Tamil community.
Canadian Tamils have urged their adopted country to accept the asylum seekers, saying that the minority group faces continued difficulties in Sinhalese-majority Sri Lanka.
The Canadian Tamil Congress issued a statement criticizing "fear-mongering," saying: "We must be mindful not to judge those who are seeking help from Canada before they have even had a chance to be heard."
Krisna Saravanamuttu, spokesman for the National Council of Canadian Tamils, said the boat people went "through hell and high water to ensure they could escape Sri Lanka."
While police were tight-lipped on the conditions of the migrants, Saravanamuttu said that some had "severe health problems" and that many of the boat people were less than 13 years old.
Long-lens television cameras showed several women on the boat. When asked if any children were onboard unaccompanied, Johnston of the border agency said only that social workers had been called in.
Sri Lanka's government has described the ship a smuggling operation by the defeated rebels, officially known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
"We have lodged our concerns with the Canadian authorities that these people aboard the Sun Sea could be linked to the LTTE," a foreign ministry spokesman said in Colombo.
Sri Lanka last year ended decades of civil war by crushing the Tamil Tiger rebels in a bloody finale in which the United Nations says that at least 7,000 civilians were killed.
Despite concerns about Sri Lanka's human rights record, Western nations ban the Tamil Tigers as a terrorist organization. The group was known for suicide bombings and use of child soldiers during its nearly four-decade fight for a separate Tamil homeland.
Dave Crawford, a local resident sipping coffee near where the Sun Sea docked, said that Canada should provide humanitarian aid -- but the government must also ensure taxpayers "aren't taken advantage of."
Another shop patron, roofing contractor Mauricio Reyes, said he immigrated to Canada from Mexico 14 years ago but was not sure if he would welcome the Tamil migrants.
"It's a tough challenge. I hope the government will make the right decisions," Reyes said.