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As it grapples with screening nearly 500 illegal migrants intercepted off the B.C. coast, the Canadian government is operating on the assumption that two more shiploads of potential asylum seekers are preparing to sail here from Southeast Asia.

Public Safety Minister Vic Toews said Friday he considers the MV Sun Sea a "test boat" to probe Canada's receptiveness to ship-borne refugee claims - part of a wider human smuggling operation with designs on sending more illegals here.

"This particular situation is being observed by others who may have similar intentions and I think it's very important that Canada deals with the situation in a clear and decisive way," Mr. Toews told reporters in Victoria, where the migrant ship is docked.

"I don't view this as an isolated, independent act."

He declined to say how many more vessels are expected but a federal government source said Ottawa puts stock in reports that two foreign ships are in South Asian waters collecting passengers with an eye to coming here.

Mr. Toews said the case of the Thai-registered Sun Sea, which Canada was unable to stop despite knowing about its voyage for two-and-a-half months, shows this country must press foreign nations to do more to discourage such vessels.

"What this case demonstrates is a need to work, on an international basis, with our allies rather than viewing this as a problem that Canadians can solve on their own," he said.

He said in broadcast interviews that Canadians could not intercept shiploads of illegals on the high seas because this would oblige Canada to rescue them. In the past, ships have tried to scuttle themselves to force intercepting nations to take them aboard.

Canadian officials will shortly begin a race against time to screen the Sun Sea arrivals for potential terrorists or smugglers before Ottawa is forced to release them at Immigration and Refugee Board hearings.

The migrants are believed to be largely Tamils from Sri Lanka and the Harper government said intelligence sources give it reason to believe the passengers include human traffickers and people linked to the Tamil Tigers terrorist group.

A Canadian Border Services Agency official told reporters the Sun Sea passengers will be fingerprinted, photographed and screened for criminality.

The 490 migrants are being received at Canadian Forces Base Esquimalt, where the Sun Sea was docked Friday. Authorities examined them for health problems before preparing to ship those who don't require medical help to detention centres.

Gary Anandasangaree, a lawyer with the Canadian Tamil Congress, says the migrants will be taken to jails in Maple Ridge, B.C., including the Fraser Regional Correctional Centre and the Alouette Correctional Centre for Women.

Dean Purdy, chair of the corrections division of the B.C. Government Employees Union, said both Maple Ridge jails are already 200 per cent above capacity.

"It means our officers will have to work even longer overtime hours than usual due to recruitment and retention issues, and presents an increased safety risk for our members and the inmate population," he said.

An estimated 90 women and 45 children are among the Sun Sea migrants, according to Manjula Selvarajah of the Canadian Tamil Congress.

In advance of the ship coming, the Canadian Tamil Congress set up a phone line Sri Lankans in Canada could call if they believed their family to be on the ship. Already more than 65 people have called and listed 135 family members, Ms. Selvarajah said.

Any children from the Sun Sea will be housed by B.C.'s Ministry of Children and Family Development at an undisclosed facility once they have been processed by Ottawa. Mothers of the children will also stay at the facility.

The Canadian government can't hold those detained indefinitely.

It will have to keep reappearing before the Immigration and Refugee Board to justify this incarceration. The first required appearance will be 48 hours after accepting a refugee claim; the next 72 hours. Ottawa will subsequently have to answer for its detention after seven days and then 30 days - and every 30 days following.

All 76 Sri Lankan Tamils from an earlier migrant smuggling ship, Ocean Lady, which arrived in B.C. last October, were released after 60 days in detention, and all now await refugee hearings. Not one was declared ineligible to make a claim, despite expert testimony that the ship's captain was a well-known Tamil Tiger.

Mr. Toews hinted at new measures to help deter the arrival of illegal migrants.

"We believe it is essential that our border and law enforcement agencies have the physical and legal means to prevent illegal migration and human smuggling," he said.

"The government will consider whether further improvements are needed to disrupt and deter [such]criminal organizations and enterprises."

Sri Lankans have other options besides boarding an illegal boat to Canada. They can apply in nearby countries to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees to be designated as refugees and resettled in nations that accept this category. However, the UN just issued new guidelines for refugees from Sri Lanka. Now that its civil war is over, Sri Lankans are no longer automatically in need of protection and each claim must be considered on its merits.

The Sun Sea arrived at CFB Esquimalt Friday just after 6 a.m. PT after being boarded by Canadian authorities the night before.

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