VANCOUVER—A migrant ship carrying nearly 90 Sri Lankan Tamils that was intercepted in Indonesian waters was heading to Canada, Canadian Immigration Minister Jason Kenney said Tuesday.
The MV Alicia remains moored offshore after it was intercepted Saturday by Indonesian marine police. The 87 people on board are reportedly refusing to leave the vessel and have held up signs and flags indicating they want asylum in New Zealand.
The migrants told the BBC Tamil service that they are refusing to leave before their safety can be guaranteed.
But Kenney said the MV Alicia’s planned destination was Canada.
“They will often hedge their bets and it’s no secret that the large-scale smuggling syndicates of this particular population of migrants identify Canada as the softest target with the strongest pull factors,” Kenney said.
The New Zealand government said the Sri Lankan refugees were not planning to go there.
“In terms of the actual plans that they had it doesn’t appear they weren’t actually intending to come here in the first place,” New Zealand Immigration Minister Jonathan Coleman told the New Zealand Herald. “If you look at where these boats have gone in the past they’ve gone to a range of destinations. Canada’s pretty popular as is Australia.”
It is unclear whether Canada, Australia or New Zealand asked the Indonesian government to intercept the boat.
Kenney said he’s unable to discuss operational details of how the MV Alicia came under Canada’s radar.
“We have a very good cooperation from the Indonesian authorities and we appreciate their good work,” he said. “It was Indonesian authorities who intercepted the vessel and brought it into port. They’re responsible for the disposition of the passengers aboard the ship.”
Last August, 492 refugee claimants from Sri Lanka arrived off B.C.’s coast on board the MV Sun Sea. Ten months before in October, the Ocean Lady, carrying 76 asylum seekers, was escorted to shore by Canadian officials while heading toward B.C. No one has been convicted of orchestrating the two voyages.
The Conservatives have responded to what it considers queue-jumping by drawing up legislation intended to strengthen Canada’s ability to prosecute human smuggling.
Kenney said conditions in Sri Lanka have improved considerably since the tail end of the 26-year-long civil war between the government and opponents wanting a separate Tamil state.