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Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks after making a transit announcement in Mississauga, Ont., on Aug. 17 , 2010. (MIKE CASSESE/REUTERS)
Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks after making a transit announcement in Mississauga, Ont., on Aug. 17 , 2010. (MIKE CASSESE/REUTERS)

Harper vows to toughen laws as Tamils zip through hearings Add to ...

The cries of a toddler echoed over a speakerphone in the windowless chambers of the Immigration and Refugee Board offices in downtown Vancouver, a momentary speed bump in the fast-track detention reviews being held for 492 Tamil migrants.

The brief interruption - cut short by the IRB adjudicator who asked the child be moved far from the phone - was the solitary disruption in a speedy process of conducting detention reviews for 92 migrants on Tuesday. None have been released from custody yet.

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Facing an "unprecedented" influx of refugee claimants, the IRB said it is piling on resources, including bringing in a retired adjudicator, to speed the hearings. So far, the board is far outpacing its record from the previous round of Tamil migrants, when it took four days to conduct reviews for 76 Tamil men.

This time, Ottawa is taking a tougher stand on illegal arrivals, with Prime Minister Stephen Harper Prime vowing to stop the flow of ship-borne migrants to Canadian shores, saying he will "not hesitate to strengthen the laws if we have to."

"Canadians are pretty concerned when a whole boat of people comes - not through any normal application process, not through any normal arrival channel - and just simply lands," Mr. Harper said at a news conference in Mississauga, Ont., on Tuesday.

The Conservatives are striking a tougher tone after many Canadians expressed concerns over last week's arrival in B.C. of 492 Tamils on board the MV Sun Sea, with possibly other boats to follow.

Government officials said Canada will continue to abide by a 1985 Supreme Court ruling that guarantees Charter rights to refugee claimants, but insisted that domestic laws are being reviewed with the goal of deterring migrant ships. Mr. Harper said that Canada is a "land of refuge," but he warned that the country will exercise its sovereignty and fight human smuggling.

"We are responsible for the security of our borders, and the ability to welcome people, or not welcome people, when they come," he said. "We'll take whatever steps are necessary going forward."

In Vancouver, all the adult migrants remain in custody. Children are not formally in custody, but are being housed with their mothers in detention facility in Burnaby, B.C. Men, women, and women with children are in separate facilities. None of the migrants have yet had their identities verified.

The IRB expects to go through 80 more detention reviews on Wednesday across the Lower Mainland. Tuesday's hearings included five conducted by phone for women with children.

The subject of the first hearing, however, was a young woman. The session lasted less than a half hour, with the woman responding only by shaking or nodding her head. The IRB heard she was on the Sun Sea with her parents and brother, who are also detained. Relatives in Toronto offered bond for her release, but the IRB refused.

Some of the migrants brought refugee cards, their national identification, passports, birth certificates and even family photos in an effort to prove their true identities, but Canada Border Services Agency has yet to verify those documents.

"I will be ordering for your continued detention for the reason that your identity is not established," Lee Ann King of the IRB told the woman.

Under immigration law, refugee claimants can be detained if they cannot be identified, might fail to appear for subsequent proceedings, or pose a security risk, or a danger to the public.

The female detainees - all dressed in green sweaters, grey sweat pants and sandals, and wearing handcuffs - said little more than yes or no yesterday, but many of them bowed when the judge read their names. One elderly woman tried to stifle her cough as not to disturb the proceedings. She examined the room, the roof, the chairs and occasionally smiled at the judge as a translator over a speaker phone helped her make sense of the proceedings.

Earlier in the day, the federal Liberals called on the government to show more compassion and to "lower the tone" on the possibility that some of the Tamil refugee claimants might be criminals or terrorists with links to the banned Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

NDP MP Paul Dewar said the government should focus on helping Sri Lanka to rebuild after a long civil war, instead of trying to block Tamils from entering Canada.

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