The U.S. Coast Guard's Pacific division has confirmed a sighting of the MV Sun Sea, a vessel believed to be carrying 200 suspected asylum seekers headed for Canada's shores.
"All I can say is that it is carrying the Thai flag and it is believed to be travelling towards British Columbia," Adam Stanton of the Coast Guard's Pacific area public affairs office said on Friday.
Seaman Stanton would not disclose if the vessel was seen in international or U.S. territorial waters. The U.S. Coast Guard Pacific Area, according to its website, is responsible for 12-mile territorial waters off the U.S. west coast and also has jurisdiction in international waters. He declined to confirm an exact location of the vessel or if it has been boarded. "As this is an ongoing investigation, we can not disclose any more at this time," he said.
The cargo ship, formerly known as MV Harin Panich 19, registered in Thailand, was reported to be travelling towards the Canadian coast after a failed attempt to reach Australia, according to Sri Lanka's Sunday Observer. The vessel was allegedly sighted off the western coast of Guatemala on July 17, according to a report in the Asian Tribune that cited no sources.
A top adviser to Canadian Forces, who asked not to be named because he is not supposed to speak with the media, said the navy is the only entity that could stop this vessel from entering Canadian territorial waters.
"As long as it is on the [international]high seas and proceeding with peaceful intent, there is no legal framework for inhibiting its journey," the adviser said.
Canadian officials in Victoria declined to confirm if any ship has been deployed on such a mission. The adviser added that the navy cannot board or reroute the ship "until it can demonstrate the ship poses a security threat to Canada … Any such decision would have to come at the highest ministerial level."
The Ministry of National Defence declined to comment, referring all calls to the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade. DFAIT did not respond to calls, but previously said Canada has been closely monitoring the ship.
Sri Lanka's high commissioner in Ottawa contends the ship is captained by a man named Vinod, a senior member of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. The Tigers fought a three-decade civil war in support of an independent Tamil state until their defeat in 2009, and were declared a terrorist organization under Canadian law.
"There is no war now in Sri Lanka, and this is definitely not a humanitarian exercise," Chitranganee Wagiswara said. "The ship is captained by a Sea Tiger leader and these are illegal migrants who are trying to come into Canada illegally. This is part of the international activity to smuggle in people."
In October, 2009, the Princess Easwary arrived in B.C. carrying 76 Sri Lankan migrants who were immediately arrested by the Canada Border Services Agency. The men were all deemed potential security threats and detained for three months. Many of their applications are still pending in a process that could take years and cost the government $40,000 to $50,000 per applicant.
The Immigration and Refugee Board, an independent tribunal, is in charge of reviewing the detention by the CBSA.
Liberal opposition MP critic Maurizio Bevilacqua said the process should be handled on a case by case basis as swiftly as possible. "Hold them [CBSA and IRB]to account it there is any delay.
"We cannot give blanket rejections or acceptances."
Officials from the Canada Border Services Agency, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, which screens all refugee claimants, and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney's office remain tightlipped.
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