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In Vancouver, dozens of boat migrants await their fate

The mysterious foreign migrants who sailed into Canadian waters off Vancouver Island on the weekend will appear at detention hearings as early as Tuesday where it's possible some could be released.

The migrants, many dressed in summery T-shirts, shorts and sandals, were intercepted on Friday afternoon when Mounties took control of their rusting ship, Ocean Lady, in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Approximately 76 men were onboard the vessel, which was escorted to a berth in Victoria by a Canadian navy frigate. They were later taken to a Victoria-area corrections facility before being sent to Vancouver for further investigation.

There have been initial reports - including a brief statement from Public Safety Minister Peter Van Loan - that the men were from Sri Lanka.

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Aerial shots taken of the men on the ship's deck showed them waving to cameras and smiling. They appeared to have South Asian physical features. Even after their detention, some of the handcuffed men were seen smiling from behind the tinted windows of the bus as it drove onto a Vancouver-bound ferry.

While officials won't confirm the ship's origin, hundreds of Sri Lankan asylum-seekers have shown up off the coasts of Australia and Indonesia in recent weeks. One ship, intercepted off Indonesia, contained 250 Sri Lankans seeking asylum. Those onboard said they feared for their lives in the aftermath of a bloody civil war between the government and rebel Tamil Tigers.

They said they weren't separatists and appealed to Western nations such as New Zealand and Canada to take them in.

Sri Lanka's long war against separatist Tigers came to a end this year, but the government continues to crack down hard on dissent and has interned up to 300,000 civilians in camps.

Outside Sri Lanka, Canada has one of the largest Tamil communities in the world, numbering up to 300,000, most of who live in the Toronto area.

In 1986, a boatload of 155 Tamils sailed into Halifax harbour, declaring refugee status. Now, members of Canada's Tamil community are closely watching Canada's latest boat drama.

Sue Nathan of the Canadian Tamil Congress moved to Canada as a teen refugee (she anglicized her name). Conditions for friends and relatives in Sri Lanka have worsened with the end to the war, she said.

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"I really hope that the Canadian government puts them through the due process, and if they are legitimate refugees, I hope that they give them some form of asylum because chances are if they are sent back, there will definitely be blood on our hands," Ms. Nathan said.

"If someone is willing to get on a boat, it just shows how desperate they are."

S Several high-profile human rights organizations have criticized the Sri Lanka government for failing to release the Tamil civilians from the camps, noting that conditions are deplorable, with foot and water shortages.

Liberal MP Bob Rae, who was refused entry into Sri Lanka earlier this year on a fact-finding mission, described the Sri Lankan situation as "politically charged," though he noted that not all Tamils are under threat. Some in fact are members of the government. Those most at risk are people who criticize the government, not specific ethnic groups, Mr. Rae said.

"It's fair to say that in Sri Lanka right now, the atmosphere is still politically charged. People who either are, or have been politically critical of the government or critical of the government's human rights record feel themselves to be under some kind of threat."

The latest drama began Friday. Police said the vessel was "not emitting an active identification signal" and failed to contact authorities upon its arrival in Canadian waters.

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"The individuals have been transported to the Lower Mainland, specifically a corrections facility in Vancouver, where the [Canada Border Services Agency]will continue to examine their admissibility to Canada under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act," border authority spokesman Rob Johnston said in a statement.

"The CBSA is exercising due diligence in the screening of all the individuals for both security and criminal threats," the statement continued. "The safety and security of Canadians remains the CBSA's priority."

Under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, people detained by border officials have the right to a hearing within 48 hours, so those proceedings should begin early this week.

These boat scenes are eerily similar to the high-seas drama that unfolded on the West Coast a decade ago when nearly 600 Chinese nationals arrived in a succession of decrepit ocean vessels. Most of those migrants made legal bids to stay in Canada, but more than 300 were flown back to China. A few dozen were permitted to stay but scores more simply vanished, believed to have slipped across the U.S. border.

With a report from Brennan Clarke

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