Vancouver: At sea for three crowded and grueling months, hundreds of Tamil asylum seekers from war-ravaged Sri Lanka sought refuge in Canada on Friday when their rusty, ramshackle cargo ship finally edged just after sunrise into the shelter of a naval port.
Some passengers stood on the deck, shaded by striped lengths of cloth, after the MV Sun Sea pulled in. Paramedics wearing surgical masks tended to them. A few were taken away on stretchers and whisked into ambulances at dockside; all were shielded from view by black umbrellas.
"This is a new beginning," said Canadian Tamil Congress spokesman Gary Anandasangaree, who watched the freighter slide into port.
The arrival of the 490 refugees, however, raised concerns among Canadian officials that the rebel Tamil Tigers, which fought and lost a bloody 25-year war for independence that ended in May 2009, was smuggling people into Canada, home to the largest Tamil community outside Sri Lanka and India.
"Our goal is to ensure that our refugee system is not hijacked by criminals or terrorists," said Public Safety Minister Vic Toews, whose government labeled the Tamil Tigers a terrorist group in 2006.
Last October, a ship carrying 76 Sri Lankan migrants was intercepted in Canadian waters. All are free while their cases are being processed.
While the war is over, Tamil leaders in Canada say, the ethnic Tamil minority still faces persecution. The United Nations and some non-governmental organizations have reported people in Sri Lanka are still being abused.
"If people looked at what they`ve endured back home, people would give these refugees the benefit of the doubt, which is what they do for every other person who approaches our borders," Canadian Tamil Congress spokeswoman Majula Selvarajah said.
Toews said the Tamil Tigers are watching how Canadian authorities respond to the latest arrival to determine their next move.
"I don`t view this as an isolated independent act," he said.
Chitranganee Wagiswara, Sri Lanka`s high commissioner to Canada, said now that the civil war is over, the Tigers might be trying to regroup in Canada, a country that has historically been a large source of their fundraising.
Wagiswara said the group has huge support in Canada, pointing to the tens of thousands of Tamils who turned out at protests last year in Toronto and in Ottawa. Demonstrators waved Tiger flags and blocked streets, including a major highway.
"We saw what happened last year during the height of the conflict. Some were quite militant, blocking the highway, and huge numbers coming out. The fear is that these sort of organizations could turn violent," she said.
The group, also known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, sought an independent state, claiming decades of discrimination by Sri Lanka`s Sinhalese majority. The conflict killed more than 80,000 people and ended after a massive government operation against the Tigers.
Wagiswara said Canada should not accept the Tamils` claims for refugee status and said the ship is part of a Tiger-linked human smuggling operation. She said the ship`s captain, a man named "Vinod," is a known Tiger and smuggled arms for the group.
"Everyone knows that Canadian refugee and immigration laws are not strong enough. These people are trying to abuse the system," she said.
Canadian officials say they are trying to determine whether any of the people on the vessel are members of the Tigers.
Toews suggested that changes may be necessary to "Canada`s generous refugee and immigration system." The Globe and Mail reported the government is planning to treat boat migrants differently from other asylum seekers.
As a signatory to the UN Convention on Refugees, Canada must process all refugee claimants who manage to reach Canadian soil.
The Thai-flagged MV Sun Sea reportedly approached Australia a few months ago but was either turned away or feared it wouldn`t be allowed to dock and sailed toward Canada, where about 300,000 Tamils live.
The ship was boarded by Canadian security officials late Thursday and brought to the military port on the outskirts of British Columbia`s provincial capital of Victoria on Vancouver Island, 47 miles (75 kilometers) east of Vancouver on the Canadian mainland.
Toews said the people aboard will be processed according to their claims. If their claims are found to be invalid, they won`t be treated as refugees.
Officials weren`t yet able to say what the conditions were like during the journey, or provide a breakdown of how many children and women there are. Authorities said the initial examinations would take 48 to 72 hours.
The Vancouver Island Health Authority said only "a small number of patients" arrived and the majority were expected to be discharged. The health authority declined to provide exact numbers on how many Tamils were treated at hospital and wouldn`t discuss their conditions.
Anandasangaree said he was waiting to meet those coming ashore. He said it could be Saturday before that happens. "It`s a very slow process. It`s taking forever, two or three people every 15 minutes," he said.
As he waits, he said, he`s seeing images of young people coming out of the 194-foot-long (59 meters) ship. He wondered how a boat that small could carry so many people.
"It`s heart-wrenching," he said.