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Would-be migrants sent to Vancouver on B.C. ferry

VANCOUVER, B.C. - Dozens of people who were aboard a mystery ship that was seized off Canada's West Coast and towed into Victoria over the weekend were loaded onto buses on Sunday and ferried to the Vancouver-area for further screening.

VANCOUVER, B.C. - Dozens of people who were aboard a mystery ship that was seized off Canada's West Coast and towed into Victoria over the weekend were loaded onto buses on Sunday and ferried to the Vancouver-area for further screening.

The 76 males, possibly from Sri Lanka, were found when the RCMP boarded a vessel displaying the name Ocean Lady on Friday near Port Renfrew and took control of the ship.

The Canada Border Services Agency and the RCMP have revealed little else about the group, their origin or how they ended up on a ship sailing towards Canada.

The seizure has prompted speculation the case may involve human smuggling and potential refugee claims, possibly by Tamils fleeing Sri Lanka, but border agency officials confirmed none of that.

"The individuals have been transported to . . . a corrections facility in Vancouver, where the CBSA will continue to examine their admissibility to Canada," Rob Johnston of the Canada Border Services Agency said in a brief statement Sunday.

"We are acting quickly to meet the immediate personal and health needs of these individuals, and we are processing them in an efficient manner and in accordance with Canadian law."

On Friday afternoon, a naval vessel approached the Ocean Lady and armed RCMP officers boarded it and took control.

Pictures of the ship released by the RCMP appear to show the would-be migrants wearing civilian clothes, some shirtless, and waving to a helicopter overhead.

The migrants, who are said to be in relatively good health, were loaded on two buses seen driving off a ferry near Vancouver on Sunday with an RCMP escort.

A day earlier, Public Safety Minister Peter Van Loan said there were preliminary indications the ship originated in Sri Lanka, though he stressed that information had not been confirmed.

David Poopalapillai of the Canadian Tamil Congress said the group he's seen in media reports appear to be Tamil.

"We presume the passengers of the ship, the people who came, are Tamils," Poopalapillai said in an interview.

"I looked at the faces, I looked at their dress, and it's a special dress . . . that's like a Tamil version of pyjamas."

The recently ended war in Sri Lanka between the government and Tamil Tiger rebels left as many as 100,000 people in the country dead and forced hundreds of thousands of minority Tamils into refugee camps.

"When you consider the threat or the danger of the (Tamil) ethnic group in Sri Lanka - Tamils are the ones who would take this risk. They are facing a life-and-death situation," Poopalapillai said.

The seizure aboard the Ocean Lady brought back memories of similar cases from a decade ago.

In 1999, about 600 people, most of them from Fujian province in China, were found on four ships off Vancouver Island.

The migrants, including women and children, had paid thousands of dollars to the smugglers for passage into Canada, where 577 applied for refugee status.

In the end, only 24 of those claims were successful. More than half were deported back to China, and three Chinese men were found guilty for running the smuggling operation and sent to prison.

The rest, according to Victor Wong, the executive director of the Chinese Canadian National Council, appear to have left the country, possibly to the United States.

Wong, who at the time was with the Vancouver Association of Chinese Canadians and advocated for the migrants, said it's difficult to compare the two cases without knowing more about this latest group - specifically if they are planning on claiming refugee status.

But he said if they do, the experience of the Chinese migrants who arrived in 1999 shows the need to ensure the group found on the Ocean Lady is afforded due process.

"If they make a refugee claim, they have a right to have their claim heard, and this is one of the issues that we had to fight strenuously for," Wong said in an interview Sunday.

"The 24 who were accepted - even if it was a low number, there were those that were accepted as Convention refugees."

Wong noted that Canada receives thousands of refugee claimants every year, but he said groups arriving by boat - rather than single cases of people travelling by plane or arriving at border crossings - tend to receive far more public scrutiny.

Benjamin Perrin, a law professor at the University of British Columbia, said there are a range of possibilities for why the people on the ship were heading to Canada: they could be victims of human trafficking, paying to be smuggled into Canada or intent on making refugee claims when they arrive.

"If this is a flashback to the late 1990s, certainly that cannot continue, certainly for the safety of these people as well as for the individuals who are profiting off the illegal movement of individuals," said Perrin, whose work focuses on human trafficking and smuggling.

Perrin, a former adviser to the federal immigration minister, said it's important that whatever happens, the fate of the group from the Ocean Lady be determined quickly rather than languish in Canada's slow-moving immigration and refugee system.

"If our immigration and refugee system does not work to quickly offer support to legitimate refugees and deny that protection where the claims are bogus, then it's not going to help anyone," said Perrin.

"This case will undoubtedly test Canada's refugee process yet again, and I expect it will be additional pressure to the federal government."

-With files from Dirk Meissner in Victoria

 
 
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