VANCOUVER, B.C. – At sea for three crowded and grueling months, hundreds of Tamil asylum seekers from war-ravaged Sri Lanka sought refuge in Canada on Friday when their rusty, ramshackle cargo ship finally edged just after sunrise into the shelter of a naval port.
Some passengers stood on the deck, shaded by striped lengths of cloth, after the MV Sun Sea pulled in. Paramedics wearing surgical masks tended to them. A few were taken away on stretchers and whisked into ambulances at dockside; all were shielded from view by black umbrellas.
“This is a new beginning,” said Canadian Tamil Congress spokesman Gary Anandasangaree, who watched the freighter slide into port.
The arrival of the 490 refugees, however, raised concerns among Canadian officials that the rebel Tamil Tigers, which fought and lost a bloody 25-year war for independence that ended in May 2009, was smuggling people into Canada, home to the largest Tamil community outside Sri Lanka and India.
“Our goal is to ensure that our refugee system is not hijacked by criminals or terrorists,” said Public Safety Minister Vic Toews, whose government labeled the Tigers a terrorist group in 2006.
Toews said the Tigers are watching how Canadian authorities respond to the latest arrival to determine their next move.
“I don’t view this as an isolated independent act,” he said.
Chitranganee Wagiswara, Sri Lanka’s high commissioner to Canada, said now that the civil war is over, the Tigers might be trying to regroup in Canada, which has historically been a large source of their fundraising.
Wagiswara said the group has huge support in Canada, pointing to the tens of thousands of Tamils who turned out at protests last year in Toronto and in Ottawa. Demonstrators waved Tiger flags and blocked streets.
Wagiswara said Canada should not accept the Tamils’ claims for refugee status and said the ship is part of a Tiger-linked human smuggling operation. She said the ship’s captain, a man named “Vinod,” is a known Tiger and smuggled arms for the group.
“Everyone knows that Canadian refugee and immigration laws are not strong enough. These people are trying to abuse the system,” she said.
Toews suggested that changes may be necessary to “Canada’s generous refugee and immigration system.” The Globe and Mail reported the government is planning to treat boat migrants differently from other asylum seekers.