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RCMP arrest four migrants in human smuggling operation

The RCMP has arrested four male Tamil migrants in their 30s under an investigation dubbed "Project Panurgic" – a sweeping, global probe that aims to staunch the flow of undocumented immigrants to Canada's shores.

Tuesday's criminal arrests in Toronto – the first since ships of Sri Lankan Tamils began arriving in Canada nearly two years ago – demonstrate that federal authorities are still intent on bringing alleged smugglers to justice. The bust may also lend a sense of urgency to the Conservative government's pledge to reintroduce tougher human-smuggling legislation in coming days.

"All of our intelligence indicates that people are prepared to pay these operations up to $45,000 to be smuggled to Canada in part because they are calculating that they will shortly thereafter be able to sponsor several family members through our very generous family reunification process," Immigration Minister Jason Kenney told reporters in Ottawa.

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The four arrested men are not alleged to be international players. Rather they are said to have been crewmen and organizers aboard a ship known as the Ocean Lady who arrived to Canada along with more than 70 other migrant Sri Lankan Tamils in late 2009.

"They were crew members, so yes, they were in the cabin … they were responsible for the navigation of the boat," Sergeant Marc LaPorte, an RCMP spokesman, told reporters.

Under current smuggling laws, if convicted the suspects face sentences of up to life in prison, and $1-million fines. Following an initial bail hearing in Brampton, Ont. on Wednesday, they are to be transported to Vancouver to await trial.

Police have identified the accused as Vignarajah Thevarajah, 33, Francis Anthonimuthu Appulonappa, 33, Hamalraj Handasamy, 39, and Jeyachandran Kanagarajah, 32.

The Ocean Lady was the predecessor of a much larger ship, the Sun Sea, which deposited nearly 500 more Sri Lankan Tamils on Canada's shores last summer. Both ships set sail from Thailand for the coast of British Columbia.

The voyages were complex operations, ones that are understood to have been organized by the same vestigial core of Tamil Tiger-linked militants who survived their faction's defeat in the Sri Lankan civil war. The Mounties would not say how their ongoing probe of the wider network is proceeding. "It's complex in that it involves a number of different countries, it's global in scope," said RCMP Superintendent Tom Jones.

Asked whether any of the four accused had links to the Tamil Tigers, considered a terrorist group by Canada, he said that "we have no information that would support that."

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All of nearly 600 migrants who arrived aboard the vessels claimed they were persons in need of refugee protection from the Sri Lankan government. Only 11 Sun Sea passengers remain jailed – refugee claimants can only be held in custody if they pose a threat to society or a demonstrable flight risk. The vast majority live under light bail conditions, with most having moved from B.C. to be absorbed into Toronto's large Tamil community.

Federal tribunals will spend years assessing their bids for asylum, and not a single claim from an Ocean Lady passenger has been heard yet.

One source close to the accused argued that the four men, including one who is newly married with a pregnant wife, are victims and not criminals. "They were fleeing from a country where they were being persecuted," she said, asking not to be identified. "The smugglers are somewhere else – these people feared for their lives."

She complained that authorities had tricked the men into being arrested by urging them to come to a federal office near Toronto's Pearson International Airport on the pretense that their release conditions needed updating.

While RCMP detectives said Tuesday that it had taken them 20 months to amass definitive criminal proof of human smuggling, sources say that Mounties from B.C. had been canvassing Ocean Lady passengers in Toronto only during the past few months.

With a report from Sunny Dhillon

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