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A private security guard escorts Sri Lankan migrants from a detention hearing at the Immigration and Refugee Board in Vancouver, B.C., on Monday October 26, 2009.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

The expected arrival of a second cargo ship ferrying Sri Lankan Tamils to Canada exposes a gap in our country's ability to deter terrorists and people-smugglers from exploiting the refugee system as an easy mode of entry. While Canada has an international obligation to give every asylum seeker a fair hearing, it must also be able to maintain the integrity of the refugee system, and to protect its borders and prevent potential terrorists, criminals and people-smugglers from establishing a presence here.

The federal government has been monitoring the MV Sun Sea since May when it began its perilous journey in the Gulf of Thailand. This week, Public Safety Minister Vic Toews said the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a separatist group in Sri Lanka, organized the migrant smuggling vessel, and that the Sun Sea is carrying 200 Sri Lankans, including members of the Tamil Tigers.

Yet, despite the government's belief that the Tamil Tigers are behind this venture, Canadian authorities chose not to intercept this ship in international waters. That would be a difficult undertaking legally, so Ottawa must continue to develop its intelligence and policing networks and work with Asian allies, including Australia and Thailand, to intercept migrant smuggling vessels and prevent them from reaching Canadian shores in the first place.

Once the Sun Sea reaches the coast of Vancouver Island, as it is expected to do today or tomorrow, Canada's Navy and Coast Guard will be obligated to assist the passengers and crew, who will be entitled to make asylum claims, and to appeal every government decision in a laborious, potentially years-long process, during which they can stay in Canada.

While the migrants will be held in local correctional facilities while their identities are established, they must eventually be released, unless they are deemed a flight risk, a danger to the public or are considered inadmissible on security grounds.

All 76 Sri Lankan Tamils from the first 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 from Ronan Gunaratna that the ship's captain is a well-known Tamil Tiger who used to deliver arms, ammunitions and explosives from North Korea to Sri Lanka.

With this outcome, is it any wonder Tamil Tiger smugglers see Canada as the preferred destination?

Since the civil war's end, security has improved sufficiently in Sri Lanka such that Tamils no longer require automatic protection, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees' latest report. However, the UNHCR adds, each case must be decided on its merits, and while senior Tiger leaders may be refused asylum, membership alone in the Tigers is not a sufficient grounds to exclude everyone.

Tamils with legitimate refugee cases should not have to pay criminals $45,000 to risk their lives on these ships, but work with the UNHCR to initiate claims in the first safe haven they reach. The Canadian government should bring some legitimate, government- and privately-sponsored refugees directly from Sri Lanka into Canada.

Most importantly, those Tigers bent on violence must not be allowed to gain a foothold in Canada. Tamils in Sri Lanka are moving to reconcile with the government after a brutal civil war, but too many Tamils in the diaspora cling to the dream of a separate state, according to a recent International Crisis Group report.

The failure to bring finality to unfounded refugee cases in a timely manner makes Canada a target for human traffickers. With that comes the threat of terrorist planning and financing originating from Canada. Neither should be tolerated.

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