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The MV Sun Sea, carrying hundreds of Tamil migrants, is escorted into CFB Esquimalt in Colwood, B.C., on Aug. 13. Immigration experts are questioning the government's response to the case. ((Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press))

The arrival in August of a ship carrying hundreds of Tamil migrants has prompted the federal government to launch a human trafficking awareness campaign, but some immigration experts are questioning whether that tactic is the best approach.

Public Safety Minister Vic Toews announced Tuesday that the government will publish a series of advertisements in partnership with Crime Stoppers to teach Canadians how to detect signs of trafficking and report their suspicions to authorities.

Toews said that while the case of the 492 migrants who arrived in B.C. aboard the MV Sun Sea ship was an example of human smuggling, not trafficking, he noted that smuggling sometimes turns to trafficking if those being transported are unable to make payment.

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In the years following the Vietnam War, over one million refugees fled the war-ravaged countries of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.

Don DeVoretz, a professor emeritus at Simon Fraser University who specializes in the economics of immigration, said the government's campaign is an ad hoc response that is "too little, too late." The government should have acted as soon as it got word that a boat could be coming.

"We've known about this problem for months, if not a year," he told CBC News. "We could have done a lot more. Now we're into a point where we're demonizing [the migrants] and making this a political issue."

He said for future boats aiming for Canada, and there are already several of them at sea, there needs to be a clear sponsorship program in place, encouraging Canadians to privately sponsor asylum seekers. Those seeking refugee status would be vetted before they arrive on Canadian soil, while they're still in their home countries or at a third-party location.

A similar tactic was taken in the 1980s with the so-called boat people. Church and community groups, through federal assistance, sponsored thousands of migrants fleeing war-torn Asian countries after the Vietnam War. The refugees were considered a success story, with many adapting quickly to Canadian society and assuming roles as highly educated professionals.

At the same time, DeVoretz said the Canadian government needs to be firm in its policy on ships that do attempt to make the trip to Canada. The ships should be stopped before they land on shore and be sent back if those on board don't have the proper documentation. That kind of tough attitude exists for people arriving by plane, so boats should be no different.

"Take the queue jumping out of it," DeVoretz said.

'Balanced approach'

Monte Solberg, a former Conservative immigration minister, said the government is handling the migrant situation the right way. He said third-party sponsorship is a good idea, but Canada would have to get other countries on board.

"I think the government is taking a balanced approach," he said. "Obviously the people that deserved to be pursued in this are the people who are engaged in human smuggling and human trafficking. They're the ones who are outright criminals. This is a crime that really is under-reported and under-prosecuted around the world and I think the government is smart to take it up and pursue it."

He said the government has to walk a "tightrope" to balance the health and safety of Canadians with the needs of migrants looking to start a new life.

But David Matas, an immigration and refugee lawyer in Winnipeg, said the government's approach hasn't been balanced enough.

He said there needs to be a focus on what prompted the Tamil migrants to come here, the human rights violations they may have been subjected to and the obstacles they faced filing refugee claims from Sri Lanka or getting help from intermediary countries like Thailand.

He said while it's important to encourage people to report suspicious activity and be aware of the problems with human trafficking, the government still hasn't addressed the full problem or searched for a full solution.

"There's an attempt to get at the criminality without focusing on any other components," he said.

With files from the CBC's Louise Elliott