The final set of charges has been laid in the MV Sun Sea human smuggling operation, sparking debate on whether the nearly two-year police investigation will deter future migrant vessels from setting sail for Canada.
RCMP held a news conference Wednesday to announce charges against three more men, bringing to six the total number charged with organizing the ship's entry, contrary to the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act. The men face penalties of life in prison and/or a $1-million fine. The MV Sun Sea arrived in B.C. via Thailand in August, 2010, carrying 492 Tamils.
Superintendent Derek Simmonds, the officer in charge of the federal border integrity program in B.C., said the six men represent not only leadership aboard the vessel, but also organizers from Canada and abroad. Three of the men are in custody in this country, while one is in France with the extradition process under way. Authorities are still trying to locate the other two men. Further charges are not expected.
"I would think that anybody who's following this case overseas, or domestically, or wherever they may exist, must be standing up and taking notice that Canada is very vigilant against human smuggling," Supt. Simmonds told reporters. "We are taking all of the steps that we can and pulling out all of the stops to investigate and bring those who are involved in the leadership and organization of that activity before the courts."
The three men against whom charges were announced Wednesday are Thampeernayagam Rajaratnam, Nadarajah Mahendran, and Sathyapavan Aseervatham. Mr. Rajaratnam was arrested Tuesday in Ontario. The whereabouts of the other two men are unknown, though they are not believed to be in Canada.
While Supt. Simmonds said the charges would deter migrant vessels from heading to Canada, Douglas Cannon – a lawyer who represented some of the MV Sun Sea passengers in their refugee cases – disagreed. Mr. Cannon said the charges would not stop the movement of refugees.
"Human smuggling only exists because people are desperate. Until you stop the causes of why people are desperate, there's going to be smugglers," he said in an interview.
Mr. Cannon said the Conservative government, which introduced a controversial refugee bill in response to the arrival of the MV Sun Sea and one other migrant ship, has made tremendous political gain portraying the Tamils as law-breakers and queue jumpers.
"An important step they can take if they really are concerned about human smuggling is allow people to make refugee claims from within their own country, instead of being forced to flee, which is how the law stands right now," Mr. Cannon said.
Immigration Minister Jason Kenney and Public Safety Minister Vic Toews issued a statement after charges were announced Wednesday.
"We commend the Royal Canadian Mounted Police on another important arrest in connection with this most reprehensible activity. Our government takes the crime of international migrant smuggling very seriously," the statement read.
Robert Gordon, director of the school of criminology at Simon Fraser University, said whether the charges have any impact on smuggling voyages to Canada remains to be seen.
"It certainly shows that police forces can get their act together and can knock out these groups, but I suspect it's a little bit like playing Whac-A-Mole. You bash one down, and another lot will pop up somewhere else," he said in an interview.
Of the 492 passengers on board the MV Sun Sea, 380 were men, 63 were women and 49 were minors. All made refugee claims.
As of May 28, the Immigration and Refugee Board said one man remains in immigration detention. Nineteen passengers have been issued deportation orders. Seven people have been accepted as refugees.