The federal government suspects a ship of more than 80 Sri Lankan Tamil asylum-seekers was bound for Canada until it was apprehended by Indonesian authorities.
"I can't talk about any details in intelligence reports. There are indications that it may have been destined for Canada," Immigration Minister Jason Kenney told reporters Tuesday. "… Our intelligence and police agencies are working very hard. They are getting great co-operation from the transit countries, as we've seen this week."
The MV Alicia was initially reported to have been bound for New Zealand, or possibly Australia, before it was stopped in Indonesian waters last weekend. While the ship's ultimate destination remains something of a mystery, the Sydney Morning Herald has reported that "charts indicating the boat was prepared to travel to Canada" may have been found aboard the vessel.
Sri Lanka's civil war ended two years ago with the Colombo government vanquishing Tamil Tiger rebels. In the ensuing exodus, thousands of Tamil asylum-seekers voyaged to India, and then Southeast Asia, to await boats that would take them to countries in the West.
During a 12-month period between 2009 and 2010, nearly 600 Tamil migrants turned up on the coast of British Columbia in two nautical voyages. Some passengers are said to have indebted themselves to the tune of more than $40,000 apiece.
The influx of refugee claimants then became a political issue, their claims highlighting the paralysis of Canada's legal systems. Nearly two years after the first ship arrived, no asylum bids have been heard by federal tribunals. While four alleged crewmembers of one ship were recently charged with human smuggling offences, it took police nearly two years to lay charges.
"These are complex investigations because these syndicates are criminal gangs who use intimidation and violence against witnesses," Mr. Kenney said. He added that among all potential smuggling destinations, "Canada is the softest target with the strongest pull factors."
For much of the past year, Canadian agents have been working in Asia seeking to thwart smuggling rings before boats are boarded. In Ottawa, the Conservative government continues to flog its proposed legislation to penalize those involved in human-smuggling networks.
The passengers aboard the MV Alicia are said to have lived in Malaysia for two years prior to setting sail. Most of the migrants refused to leave the ship when it was brought ashore by Indonesian authorities.
Six women and five children were aboard. According to a BBC report, the passengers had a month's worth of provisions with them. They described themselves as Tamils who were trapped in the crossfire during the final stages of the Sri Lankan conflict, and hired the ship "through financial help from Diaspora organizations."
Mr. Kenney argues smuggling networks are driven by financial motives, not by humanitarian considerations. Pointing out that the United Nations has said that Sri Lanka is no longer necessarily unsafe for migrants to return to, the minister added there are countries closer to Sri Lanka to which bona fide refugee claimants could go.
"Paying a criminal gang $50,000 to get in a leaky boat to cross the Pacific Ocean is the wrong way" to get to Canada, he said.