The mystery over the Thai flagship MV Sun Sea -- heading to Canada with many Sri Lankan Tamils -- has thickened.
While earlier reports indicated the vessel was carrying 200 Sri Lankan migrants, unidentified Canadian sources say there are at least 500 people on board, including women and children. There are mixed reactions in Canada, too. Some say the ship should not be given nod to anchor on the country's shores, others say it is a ploy of the beleaguered Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam to regroup outside Sri Lanka.
The MV Sun Sea over which the Canadian coast guard and the naval authorities have been keeping a quiet watch since May, when it set sailed from Sri Lanka, and turned away from Thailand and Australia, entered Canada's 200-mile economic zone on August 12.
It was reportedly met by a Canadian Navy ship from Canadian Forces Base Esquimalt. It is likely to enter the Canadian territorial waters on Friday when it will be led to the Ogden Point of the British Columbia coast, where the MV Sun Sea is likely to disembark.
Meanwhile, two disturbing reports have emerged. First, one passenger on board has reportedly died. Second, a Toronto Star report claims many as 75 passengers have contracted tuberculosis.
The BC Government is preparing a previously closed ward on the seventh floor of the Victoria General Hospital where rooms are being sanitized for these "reportedly sick" migrants.
And the BC Correctional authorities have already prepared two Maple Ridge Jails to receive the Lankan asylum seekers.
"We have a longstanding formal agreement with the federal government and if you look back to the past decade, we certainly have a lot of experience in meeting that demand when migrant ships arrive,' said BC Corrections spokesman Jess Gunnarson.
Last October, a ship with 76 Sri Lankan Tamils similarly reached the BC coast and all those people, after being taken to the prison and ascertaining their identities, were released to Lankan families and most of them are now living in Toronto, receiving welfare, and awaiting for the refugee claims to be processed.
The new migrants will, from all indications, be housed in the Maple Ridge jails initially till their identities are established and then the Citizenship and Immigration Canada, Border Security, Royal Canadian Mounted Police would decide the next course of action.
Canada's Justice Minister Vic Toews has concerns that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a banned terrorist organization in Canada, is behind the human smuggling ring and many of the people on board could have been LTTE operatives.
"There's reason to believe that the LTTE may be involved in organising and carrying out this activity," he said on August 7 in Toronto.
The Sri Lankan High Commission in Ottawa agrees with Toews: 'Most of them are hardcore LTTE people (Tamil Tigers),' High Commission spokesman Sumith Dessanayake is quoted in media reports as saying.
'The Tigers are trying to regroup here to keep the movement alive.'
But the Canadian Tamil Congress spokesman has urged the government that all migrants aboard MV Sun Sea be each given a chance separately, interviewed by the authorities so that their identities could be established and then given a chance to make refugee claims to let the legal process to progress.
Many lawyers have already reached Vancouver to offer legal help and other support after the migrants disembark near Victoria.
As the ship was heading towards the Canadian waters, some people suggested it should be turned away. But international experts said that would be illegal. Canada has an obligation under international law to accept the vessel and process refugee applications, Yuvon Dandurand, an international expert on human rights smuggling, is quoted as saying.
'Calling them illegal immigrants is simply wrong,' he said.
"They are coming here (Canada) to seek status We have a process for refugee determination and they will go through it.'
"Turning the ship away, as was done by Australia, was not a viable option for Canada as it would be a violation of our Charter of Rights and Freedoms and our obligations under international law," said Toronto-based Immigration lawyer Lorne Waldman.
But Canada's concern is heightened with the reports that more ships with large number of Sri Lankan migrants are heading towards the coast.
"We are becoming a target of human smugglers and human traffickers,' an unidentified federal official was quoted in the Vancouver Sun as saying. 'We are looking to send a message to these people who are usually part of criminal organziations, in some cases with possible terrorist connections in the case of the Tamil Tigers, that we are not going to allow our laws to be broken.'
Canada, it is suggested, should work closely with the Sri Lankan government to ensure that firstly there's no persecution of the Tamil community there as the war with the LTTE insurgency has ended.
Secondly, Canada is reportedly working with the governments in some Asian countries to identify and intercept vessels that may contain asylum seekers.
'It's not that we are sitting back and waiting,' an unidentified official source is quoted in the Globe and Mail as saying. 'There's nothing concrete as of yet, but it's an area that we're looking to address as soon as possible.'