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File photo of the Harin Panich 19, now renamed MV Sun Sea.

Marinetraffic.com/ The Globe and Mail/Marinetraffic.com/ The Globe and Mail

With a boatload of up to 500 Tamil refugee claimants expected to enter Canadian territorial waters as early as Thursday evening, and with more ships reportedly on the way, the Conservative government is scrambling to reverse this country's growing international reputation as an easy mark for people fleeing their homelands.

The MV Sun Sea entered Canada's 200-nautical-mile economic management zone Wednesday, and is expected to enter territorial waters Thursday evening or Friday morning, said a government source who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Earlier estimates put the passengers at 200.

The government is unable to confirm a report that one person aboard the vessel has died.

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Officials have been preparing for the influx of new migrants. On Wednesday evening, observers saw one large Marquis tent and11 smaller tents being pitched near Fisgard Lighthouse off Esquimalt Lagoon and a number of Canadian Border Services Agency personnel on scene. Two British Columbia jails have been preparing for the arrival of hundreds.



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The Canadian government believes that several other vessels currently in international waters off southern Asia may also be heading, or planning to head, to Canada.

"There is increasing concern that we are becoming the target of international smugglers," the official said. Immigration, police and public security officials are attempting to develop options to deter the smugglers, the official said.

Canada is working with governments in Asia to identify and intercept vessels that may contain asylum seekers, but the government is not ready to discuss what else, if anything, can be done.

"It's not like we're just sitting back and waiting," the source said. "There's nothing concrete as of yet, but it's an area that we're looking to address as soon as possible."

Naval and government officials said they've been monitoring the vessel since it departed in May from Thailand, where it is registered. The MV Sun Sea was originally bound for Australia, but inexplicably changed course and headed for British Columbia along the Pacific Ocean route.

Citing security concerns, the Ministry of Defence would not confirm whether the vessel was monitored through satellite or physical surveillance.

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Last October, a rusting vessel known as Ocean Lady docked in Vancouver with 76 Sri Lankan citizens aboard. All have since been released and filed refugee claims, most are living in Toronto and few, if any, face a realistic prospect of deportation.

Canada has an obligation under international law to accept the vessel and process refugee applications, said Yvon Dandurand, an international expert on human smuggling.

"Calling them illegal immigrants is simply wrong," he said. "They are coming here to seek status … we have a process for refugee determination and they will go through it."

It takes four years or more to process a refugee claim, and people familiar with the system say that by then claimants typically have found jobs, gotten married, had children, or otherwise put down such deep roots that one way or another they persuade federal officials to let them stay. The same prospects await those approaching Canada's shores on the Sun Sea.

The Canadian Tamil Congress said most of the Sri Lankans detained at the Fraser Regional Corrections Centre after their arrival last year were not treated like suspects.

"The ones I spoke to said they were treated with a lot of respect," said media co-ordinator Manjula Selvarajah, adding that they were comparing the treatment to the kind they received in Sri Lanka. Detention officials made sure they had access to health care, she said, and many of them also had access to legal counsel.

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A handful of Toronto lawyers were en route to Vancouver Wednesday night to assist the incoming migrants, she said.

Parliament passed new legislation in June to reform the refugee laws, making it quicker both for legitimate refugees to obtain asylum and for illegitimate claimants to be deported. The goal is to have claims heard within 60 to 90 days of arrival, and for illegitimate claimants to be out of the country within two years.

But federal officials estimate it will take 12 to 18 months more to upgrade computers, train public servants and otherwise prepare for an official switch to the new rules. In the meantime, the ships keep coming, while immigration, border security and police puzzle how to staunch the flow.

Nonetheless, NDP immigration critic Olivia Chow warned that the people on board the Sun Sea must be treated no differently from anyone else seeking asylum here.

"There shouldn't be any different treatment of anyone who arrives on the shores of Canada, whether it is by plane or by boat or by car or by walking," she said in an interview. "If they are claiming to be refugees, then let's deal with them according to the law."

The Ocean Lady migrants were not treated differently because of the way they arrived, Ms. Selvarajah said.

"Despite rumours and innuendo, Canadian Border Services officials did what they typically do with anyone who shows up at our border," she said. "If their case was valid, they were taken through the transitional refugee claim system. If not, they were rejected."

Ms. Chow pointed out that when Canadian officials have turned away a ship with passengers seeking asylum in the past, the results have been tragic. After the Komagata Maru was turned away from Canada in 1914, British soldiers shot 26 of the vessel's passengers upon its return to India.

And in 1939, Canada refused admission to more than 900 Jews fleeing Nazi persecution aboard the St. Louis. The ship returned to Europe and most of its passengers died in concentration camps.

With a report from Sarah Boesveld

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