Saturday, August 14, 2010

Adults, children from migrant ship taken to Victoria hospital

By Ian Shelton | National Post

A six-month-old baby and two pregnant women were believed to be among those taken to a Victoria hospital on Friday as the first passengers from a migrant ship that arrived in British Columbia earlier in the day were taken to be checked out by doctors.

About five ambulances started delivering migrants from the cargo ship to Victoria General Hospital. Security screening prevented a clear view of how many people were exiting from the ambulances that started arriving late morning.

The cries of young children could be heard behind the security fence.

“That’s the shame of it,” said one of those watching behind the police tape as screams from what sounded like at least two toddlers built in volume.

Officials confirmed on Friday that 490 Sri Lankans were on board the ship that arrived in Esquimalt Harbour, near Victoria, around 6 a.m. local time amid tight security.

Intercepted on Thursday afternoon, the MV Sun Sea was led through the Juan de Fuca Strait by RCMP patrol boats through the night.

Every person from the ship will be assessed individually to ensure they are not engaged in criminal activity, including human-smuggling, said Public Safety Minister Vic Toews.

“Officials from the Canada Border Services Agency will take the time necessary to identify and process individuals aboard the Sun Sea in accordance with Canadian law,” Mr. Toews told reporters on Friday.

“Any individuals who endanger national security or who have engaged in the criminal enterprise of human-smuggling will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.”

Mr. Toews, who said Canadian authorities suspect Sri Lankan members of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or Tamil Tigers, were aboard the ship “and indeed may well be co-ordinating this activity as part of a larger enterprise.”

“This particular situation we believe to be part of a larger human-smuggling and human-trafficking enterprise, and we believe there are others who are watching this particular situation to determine the reaction of Canadian authorities,” said Mr. Toews.

“Canada has very generous refugee and immigration laws and my concern is that individuals now take advantage of the existing law in order to further criminal or terrorist activities.

“Our goal is not to stall or stop political refugees, or refugees generally. Our goal is to ensure that our refugee system is not hijacked by criminals or terrorists.”

Defence Minister Peter MacKay praised the efforts of Canadian authorities.

“I commend the Canadian Forces for their swift and capable reaction to this incident,” he said in a statement.

“This operation is part the Government of Canada’s clear message to those who would take advantage of Canadian generosity that human-smuggling and illegal migration cannot and will not be tolerated.”

It’s expected that those on the ship will be processed and, if healthy, taken to Fraser Regional Correctional Centre for men and the Alouette Correctional Centre for Women east of Vancouver.

Mr. Toews said greater co-ordination between Canada and international allies is necessary to deal with the issue of human smuggling.

“We need to look at our laws to see whether they’re sufficiently strong, and also whether our intelligence agencies from various nations are properly co-ordinated,” said Mr. Toews.

Human smuggling was one way the Tamil Tigers funded their 25-year war with the Sri Lankan government.

The Tigers were crushed in a final May 2009 assault amid accusations of war crimes on both sides.

The International Crisis Group and other observers have said that, 15 months later, the heavily Tamil northern regions are still troubled by arbitrary detention, disappearances and other suspected security force abuses.

It has been widely speculated by Sri Lankan officials and some South Asian media publications that there are well-known Tamil Tiger figures aboard the Sun Sea.

The MV Sun Sea is the second Tamil refugee ship to arrive in Canada in the past year.

In October, the Ocean Lady, a rusting cargo ship carrying 76 Tamils, was intercepted by HMCS Regina and docked at Ogden Point, in Victoria.

Despite claims that 25 of those onboard were Tamil Tigers, the Canadian Border Service Agency was forced to release the last of them for a lack of evidence.

Most are now living in Toronto.

About 91% of Sri Lankan refugee applications were approved in 2009, said Richard Kurland, a lawyer who specializes in immigration and refugee issues.

© National Post

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