Tamil migrants in good shape: RCMP

The Tamil migrants who landed on Vancouver Island appear to be in good health after several months at sea, an RCMP official says.
Tamil migrants, including some children, are escorted from the MV Sun Sea after it arrived at CFB Esquimalt on Friday.
The Tamil migrants who landed on Vancouver Island appear to be in good health after several months at sea, an RCMP official told reporters in Esquimalt, B.C., on Saturday.

"The migrants were not in a distressed state, [their] clothing was in good condition and they had access to food and water during the trip," Insp. Tracey Rook said.

Rook said the Mounties haven't completed their search of the vessel, but so far no weapons have been found. She said investigators are collecting evidence to determine whether any Criminal Code violations, including human smuggling, have occurred.

The MV Sun Sea, which was escorted into Esquimalt by Canadian navy ships on Friday, was in much better shape than expected, said Rob Johnston of the Canada Border Services Agency.

Quarters were "extremely cramped" but the vessel was "relatively clean and organized," Johnston said. Men, women and children were housed in separate areas and had hammocks to sleep in, and a system had been developed to dispose of waste and garbage.

"The migrants were calm, compliant and generally in good spirits," Johnston said, adding they were provided food, water and medical attention upon arrival. He said most were in good health.

"For clarity, I believe we're dealing with human smuggling in this incident," Johnston said.

"I did not see personally anybody who looked like they'd been through a very harrowing experience. However, in saying that I also acknowledge I don’t think anybody would want to be on that vessel in those conditions."

While the number of migrants has been widely reported at 490, Johnston said the CBSA will release a final number once officials are confident all people have been processed. "The last thing we want to do is put out an incorrect number."

Border service agents had completed initial examinations of the migrants, Johnston said, and the Ministry of Children and Family Development has taken some children and women into their care.

After initial processing, Johnston said, the migrants are being sent over to BC Corrections, which has been transporting them since the arrival of the vessel. They're being transferred to a detention centre in the Vancouver area.

Detention hearings will begin on Monday.

Johnston said it was too soon to say how long the migrants might remain in the hands of the corrections system, since each was being give due process.

Dr. Peter Uhtoff of the Public Health Agency of Canada said none of the migrants examined to date have displayed symptoms of a communicable disease, so no action has been taken under the Quarantine Act.

Several migrants sent to hospital

Twenty-seven patients registered at the emergency department at Victoria General Hospital, said Dr. Richard Crow, chief medical officer of the Vancouver Island Health Authority

He said the majority had been treated and discharged back to federal authorities. Four adults and two children had been admitted to hospital and remain in care, though they might be discharged later Saturday.

Authorities in Esquimalt continued the lengthy task of processing the migrants on Saturday, a day after their arrival in Canada.

Identity checks are expected to take days or even weeks. The migrants are expected to claim refugee status, citing persecution in their native Sri Lanka.

Officials will be trying to figure out exactly who the migrants are, and will be running background checks to see whether any have links to the Tamil Tigers — an organization the Canadian government has declared a terrorist group.

Government officials have said they believe some of those on board are Tamil Tigers.

Human smuggling

The Canadian government is calling the MV Sun Sea a test ship. "[The government believes] it is part of a larger smuggling ring and smugglers may be waiting to see what Canada's reaction will be to this group to see what they do," the CBC's Susana da Silva reported.
Members of the Canada Border Services Agency are seen wearing surgical masks as they board the MV Sun Sea. ((Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press))

On Friday, Public Security Minister Vic Toews said Canada has been "very welcoming" of refugees, but said the government "must ensure that our refugee system is not hijacked by criminals or terrorists."

He also promised a crackdown on human smuggling.

It's estimated that as many as 50 of the migrants are children. That's a new complication for officials, who will now have to determine whether some of the children would need to be given foster care while their adult relatives are processed. The 76 Tamil migrants who arrived in B.C. last October were all grown men.

The MV Sun Sea was escorted to the CFB Esquimalt dock Friday morning following a sea voyage from Sri Lanka that lasted three months. 

Reaction mixed

Members of Canada's 250,000-strong Tamil community were waiting dockside, prepared to offer translation, health assistance and financial help.
Migrants look over the side of the MV Sun Sea after it was escorted into CFB Esquimalt. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

Other Canadians have mixed feelings. Some say the migrants should be welcomed to Canada, while others have said no welcome mat should be put out.

The comment on Friday's CBC.ca migrant story that garnered the most agreement from readers was one that asked why authorities didn't "turn the ship around and tell these illegal aliens to go … back to where they came from."

A protest by people who say the Tamils should be sent back was planned for Saturday afternoon, the CBC's da Silva reported.

Boat arrivals not typical    

Experts note that far more asylum seekers enter Canada by plane and land crossings than by boat.

"There's certainly that dramatic fashion about a boat arrival that seems to stir up a dramatic response in the way that other types of arrivals simply don't," said Scott Watson, professor of international relations at the University of Victoria.

As a signatory to the UN Convention on Refugees, Canada must not return migrants to their own country if they face persecution there. 

Previous Tamil migrants said they were fleeing persecution after the country's bloody 26-year civil war between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers.

The Tamil Tigers were defeated in May 2009. 

With files from The Canadian Press