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The Thai fishing port of Sonkhla, shown on May 19, 2010, is where it is believed the Tamil migrant ship Sea Sun set sail for Canada. (Cedric Arnold/Getty Images for The Globe and Mail)
The Thai fishing port of Sonkhla, shown on May 19, 2010, is where it is believed the Tamil migrant ship Sea Sun set sail for Canada. (Cedric Arnold/Getty Images for The Globe and Mail)

Tamil arrests send warning to people smugglers, Ottawa says Add to ...

Authorities in Thailand say they have arrested another 100 Tamil migrants, and Canada's Immigration Minister says the bust ought to send a strong message to human-trafficking syndicates: Don't target Canada.

"We've increased our police and intelligence presence in human-smuggling transit countries, including Thailand," Jason Kenney said in an interview, alluding to pre-emptive actions now being taken by federal agents.

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It is unclear if the migrants were headed for Canada and Mr. Kenney could not speak to the details of the bust, but he said it "underscores for us the ongoing threat to the integrity of Canada." He added that there are "several efforts under way by smuggling syndicates to send vessels to Canada."

In the past year, hundreds of Tamil asylum seekers have arrived in Canada on two boats that set sail from Thailand. Ottawa is now trying to stop more ships from arriving by thwarting would-be migrants before they depart.

To that end, the Conservative government has introduced a new bill to crack down on smuggling syndicates, toughening criminal penalties for ringleaders.

"Parliament must act quickly," Mr. Kenney said Friday, stressing that such networks continue to be "very active."

Last summer, former Canadian intelligence chief Ward Elcock was appointed Canada's globetrotting special adviser on human smuggling. Mr. Kenney said newly formed partnerships with Australia and Thailand are paying dividends, but he declined to go into operational details.

Earlier this month, The Globe and Mail learned, two senior Mounties went to Thailand to press their police counterparts there to enforce immigration laws.

Around the same time, Thai authorities arrested 150 Tamils, claiming they were illegal migrants bound for an unspecified third country. Some were accused of having links to Sri Lanka's Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a terrorist group in the eyes of much of the international community.

"You can say that Canada has pre-empted one of the vessels," Rohan Gunaratna, a Singapore-based security expert, said after the arrests.

Some Canadians are disturbed by the busts in Thailand, particularly the Tamil diaspora. The community comprises tens of thousands of refugees who have claimed asylum from the Sri Lankan civil war over the past 30 years.

They are alarmed at the thought of their brethren being jailed in Thailand and sent back to Sri Lanka without having had any asylum claims heard, and possibly with Canada's help.

"The present [Thai]Prime Minister is being accused of committing war crimes against his own citizens," said David Poopapillai, spokesman for the Canadian Tamil Congress. "How do you expect them to treat foreign nationals over there?"

Mr. Kenney said Friday that Thailand is a sovereign country and that its government "has every right under international law to deal with people who are there illegally."

Nearly 600 Tamil asylum seekers arrived in Canada on two boats this past year: the Ocean Lady , which arrived in B.C. last October; and the Sun Sea, which landed in August.

Individual passengers are said to be paying up to $50,000 apiece for the voyage.

In all cases, they made harrowing journeys from Sri Lanka - where the Tamil Tigers were vanquished last year - before being warehoused in India and then Thailand to await passage for Canada. Thousands of other Tamil migrants have set sail for Australia.

Whether the individual migrants turn out to be refugees, economic migrants, security threats or smugglers has yet to be determined. The claims are now before Canada's Immigration and Refugee Board, where the decision-making process can take years.

Follow on Twitter: @colinfreeze

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