Ottawa plans new rules for boat migrants

Posted by admin on Aug 13th, 2010

John Ibbitson, Steven Chase and Marten Youssef. Globe and Mail. Friday, Aug. 13, 2010 12:34PM EDT

Senior figures within the Conservative government are working to craft new tools that would treat boatloads of illegal immigrants arriving on Canada’s shores differently from other refugee claimants. These plans are being hatched as Canadian authorities Thursday took control of a ship of nearly 500 illegal Tamil immigrants off the west coast of British Columbia – a passenger list the Tories say includes suspected human smugglers and terrorists. The MV Sun Sea was boarded Thursday night just after 9 pm EDT by the Canadian military, the RCMP and Canada Border Services Agency staff. They took control of the ship, which was to be taken to CFB Esquimalt just west of Victoria.

The tools the Conservatives are developing could prompt a clash between Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government and the opposition parties in the House of Commons, who strongly believe all refugee claimants should be treated equally.

Asked what Ottawa could to prevent more boats of illegals from heading to Canada, Public Safety Minister Vic Toews said Thursday the Tories want to make this country less welcoming for future shipments of human cargo.

“We want to send a very clear message that this type of activity, specifically human trafficking and human smuggling is illegal, it’s criminal and we will take the strongest steps possible to deter it,” he said in Winnipeg.

The frigate HMCS Winnipeg established visual identification with the Sun Sea at about 2:30 pm EDT Thursday and at about 5:30 pm EDT the ship entered Canadian territorial waters.

Track the vessel

Live map of the cargo ship carrying Tamil migrants


The Canadian navy made contact with the foreign vessel – which Ottawa fears may include remnants of the Tamil Tiger terrorist group – shortly after it altered course to head towards Port Alberni, B.C.

“The Winnipeg attempted to hail the Sun Sea several times, and after establishing communications the vessel declared that it had refugees on board,” Mr. Toews said.

Sources within the government say that federal officials are pursuing a two-pronged strategy to combat shiploads of human cargo from arriving off Canada’s shores.

The RCMP is working actively with Australia – another preferred destination for such vessels – and in Asian countries to identify ships with human cargo. Canadian officials say that one such vessel was detained earlier this year in Thailand, and its passengers charged with visa violations. Thai officials could not be reached for confirmation.

But the Thailand-registered Sun Sea was outside Thai jurisdiction when Canadian officials detected it. The predominant legal opinion within the government is that Canada is powerless to confront such vessels while they are in international waters.

“To the extent we wanted to do anything in international waters, legal tools would be needed,” said one government official who spoke on condition of not being identified.

Any measures would also distinguish between individuals arriving on Canadian soil and seeking refugee status and boatloads of people brought to Canada by what Mr. Toews said are criminal or terrorist organizations.

“Human smugglers and human traffickers are now watching Canada’s response to judge whether or not they can continue to take advantage of us,” Mr. Toews said Thursday.

“We will send a message loud and clear to other criminals.”

There is growing suspicion that the Ocean Lady, which brought 76 Tamil refugee claimants to Canada last October, was sent by the Tamil Tigers to test the Canadian government’s response. All of that vessel’s passengers are in Canada and pursuing refugee claims.

“It appears to have been a probe to test the system,” said Benjamin Perrin, a professor of law at University of British Columbia who specializes in issues surrounding human smuggling.

“Canada should be quite concerned that we are being targeted by an operation that appears to be quite sophisticated,” he said.

However, any measures that seek to distinguish refugee claimants arriving in the holds of ships from others entering Canada would have a difficult time making it though this minority Parliament, since the opposition parties insist all claimants must be treated equally.

The Harper government found itself red-faced Thursday after prematurely announcing the MV Sun Sea had been boarded. Officials had e-mailed reporters with prepared statements at 4:30 pm EDT saying a boarding had taken place.

Mr. Toews, who spoke briefly later about the Sun Sea in Winnipeg Thursday, omitted mention of the boarding from his prepared remarks because, sources say, he had received a phone call warning him to drop mention of the boarding.

Government officials only revealed this to the media after 8 p.m. EDT and blamed the Canada Border Services Agency for sending “errant information” up the chain of command.

The HMCS Winnipeg is a guided-missile frigate that earned its reputation in intercepting pirates off the coast of Somalia and the Gulf of Aden. It was deployed in case the Sun Sea resisted Canadian efforts and its boarding party crew is “among the best trained” to handle these situations, a navy source said.

CFB Esquimalt has been prepared to receive the migrants. “They put up tents on the jetty where the preliminary procedures will take place [and where the Tamils] will be documented and tested,” the source said.

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