An estimated 490 Tamil migrants who arrived on a ship seeking refugee shelter in Canada will be investigated to determine whether there are "human smugglers or terrorists" among them, Canada’s Public Safety Minister Vic Toews said.
Speaking to reporters in Esquimalt, B.C., Toews said Canada has been "very welcoming" of refugees, but the government "must ensure that our refugee system is not hijacked by criminals or terrorists."
The minister said the government will consider whether "further improvements" are needed to disrupt and deter criminal organizations and enterprises such as human smuggling, but gave no further details.
The Canada Border Services Agency will take the time necessary to identify and process all individuals who were on the ship in accordance with Canadian law, Toews said.
He pledged that any individuals who endanger national security or who have engaged in human smuggling "will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law."
The migrants are believed to be Tamils from Sri Lanka who left their homeland in May aboard the MV Sun Sea. They arrived earlier Friday at CFB Esquimalt after spending almost 90 days at sea.
The government has said it believes some of the migrants are members of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, also known as the Tamil Tigers, which has been outlawed in Canada as a terrorist group since 2006.
A CBSA official told reporters those who were on board will be fingerprinted, photographed and screened for criminality. The examination is expected to take up to 72 hours because there are usually difficulties in confirming identities, the official said.
Toews said the best way to deal with migrant ships is to wait until they enter Canadian waters.
"Intervening on the high seas brings certain legal obligations and a number of legal problems, and so it's better to intercept them, I'm advised, inside of Canadian territorial waters."
The 59-metre, Thai-owned cargo ship arrived at the base on Vancouver Island shortly before 6:30 a.m., escorted by two naval tugboats. It was docked about two hours later.
Border officers and other officials donned surgical masks and gloves before boarding the ship, in light of reports there may be passengers with infectious diseases on board. Some reports indicate several passengers may be infected with tuberculosis.
During his news conference, Toews did not discuss the migrants' conditions, saying only that the high number of passengers faced "certain difficulties in terms of living conditions" from such a long journey on a vessel that size.
Officials briefing reporters after the minister's appearance also would not give specifics of the conditions on the vessel, but said there was "not a large medical need" for those on board.
The migrants are expected to be transported from CFB Esquimalt to various destinations, including Victoria General Hospital and the Wilkinson Road Jail in Victoria.
The CBC's Chris Brown reported that a family with several young children on the ship appeared to have their belongings in plastic bags.
Some people were later seen at hospitals, he said.
"We counted a dozen or so people from the ship arriving at a Victoria hospital but their condition was unknown," said Brown. (CBC Canada)