Tamil died during voyage from Sri Lanka

The RCMP say one of the nearly 500 Tamil migrants who set sail for Canada aboard a cramped cargo freighter died just weeks before the ship arrived off the B.C. coast.

One of the nearly 500 Tamil migrants who set sail for Canada aboard a cramped cargo freighter died just weeks before the ship arrived off the British Columbia coast, the RCMP confirmed Sunday.

The MV Sun Sea arrived near Victoria on Friday carrying about 490 people from war-ravaged Sri Lanka. They are expected to make refugee claims.

"What investigators have passed along to us is that a 37-year-old man did die about three weeks ago while the MV Sun Sea was in international waters," Const. Mike McLaughlin said in an interview.

"Their investigation has determined he died of a sickness; he simply couldn't be treated at sea. There's nothing to indicate any criminal intent."

McLaughlin said the man was buried at sea.

Sarujan Kanapathipillai of the Canadian Tamil Congress said members of his organization have been in touch with some of the migrants, who told them the man left behind a family in Sri Lanka.

"That's only about two weeks ago, so they made it for most of the journey," said Kanapathipillai.

"This person was a father of one, and his child and wife are in Sri Lanka. It shows how desperate these people were to try and get out of Sri Lanka, the conditions they must have been in."

The Vancouver Island Health Authority has said 27 migrants were taken to hospital in Victoria, including two pregnant women who were admitted as a precaution. Most have since been treated and discharged, and none were in critical condition.

The ship's passengers included more than 350 men, 50 women and 50 children.

Immigration hearings are expected to get underway in Vancouver on Monday for the hundreds of Tamil migrants who arrived in Esquimalt, B.C., on Friday.

Initial processing of the migrants is almost done, with files opened on 450 by Saturday afternoon, the Canada Border Services Agency said. The exact number of migrants has yet to be confirmed.

Some migrants have already been transferred to detention facilities in the Vancouver area.

"They'll look at each one on a case-by-case basis," the CBC's Susana da Silva reported Sunday. "If they think they may not appear at future hearings or have any kind of criminal background, they could be held for several months."

Authorities say B.C.'s Children's Ministry has taken custody of the 50 children who were on board.

"We do our best not to separate families," said Rob Johnston, a spokesman for the Canada Border Services Agency. "However, there may be circumstances where that's not possible."

Cramped but clean

Conditions on board were cramped but "relatively clean and organized," officials said at a news conference Saturday.

Most of the 27 migrants who were taken to hospital have since been released. So far, no weapons have been found on board.

Authorities said the MV Sun Sea appears to have been used for human smuggling. They're still checking to see if any of the migrants have links to the Tamil Tigers — a group labelled a terrorist organization by Ottawa several years ago.

Public Safety Minister Vic Toews has said the Sun Sea is part of a human smuggling operation that is linked to the Tigers.

The arrival of the ship has stirred an emotional debate in Canada. Many people have wondered why the ship was not turned back, while others have accused the migrants of jumping the immigration queue to hasten their bid for Canadian residency.

As a signatory to the UN Convention on Refugees, Canada is obliged not to send migrants back 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.

Last October, 76 Tamil migrants who arrived in a boat off Vancouver Island claimed refugee status. All were eventually released from custody after allegations that some were linked to the Tamil Tigers were not proven. 

With files from The Canadian Press