Sunday, October 18, 2009
A rusting ship carrying 76 men has been intercepted off the west coast of Vancouver Island and escorted into Victoria by Canadian authorities in what officials suspect is a case of human smuggling. An armed RCMP boarding party took control of the vessel late Friday afternoon in the Strait of Juan de Fuca between Vancouver Island and Washington State. There were no shots fired in the takeover and no one was injured. It was guided to a berth at Ogden Point in Victoria Saturday afternoon under the watchful eyes of several RCMP vessels and the frigate HMCS Regina. Once the vessel, which bears the name Ocean Lady, reached shore, Canadian Border Services Agency assumed control of the it and the passengers on board. Earlier Saturday night, Public Safety Minister Peter Van Loan said from Ottawa early indications are the people aboard are from Sri Lanka, although that has not been confirmed. A vicious civil war on the island nation ended earlier this year with the defeat of Tamil separatists. "Obviously, they are arriving in a non-conventional fashion so that raises concerns . . . of human smuggling," he said. In Victoria, a CBSA official said at a news conference Saturday night that meeting the health needs of the passengers on board the ship while upholding the safety of Canadians is the first priority. "Let me assure you the CBSA will exercise due diligence in the screening of all irregular migrants for both security and criminal threat," said Rob Johnston, director of enforcement. Before and during the press conference, CBSA agents boarded the vessel and removed passengers three at a time. CBSA took great pains to shield the faces of the men from the media and curious on-lookers gathered on shore. A fenced walkway set-up Saturday afternoon was covered by blue tarpaulins and agents carried black umbrellas as they led people off the boat.If refugee claimants' photographs are shown in their home country, leaving them open to persecution, it makes the success of a refugee claim almost automatic, according to RCMP Sgt. Tim Shields. But Johnson said the boat's passengers were not handcuffed or shackled as they are being processed under the Immigration and Refugee Act. Johnson couldn't say how long the ship has been at sea, but he said all passengers appeared to be in good health. He would not say where the passengers were from or what language officials were using to communicate with them. Johnson wouldn't reveal where exactly -- or how long -- the passengers will be kept in the Victoria area. He did, however, say CBSA has a "strong partnership" with B.C. Corrections. Once the vessel was tied up at Ogden Point, Coast Guard officials circled it with a containment boom. Officials offered little explanation about where the boat originated from or who owns it. Earlier in the day, Van Loan's department issued a statement on the matter."An RCMP Emergency Response Team trained in maritime intervention boarded and took control of the vessel. A Canadian Forces navigational and safety crew is now piloting the vessel. The RCMP vessels Higgitt and Lindsay along with the Canadian Navy frigate HMCS Regina are working to safely escort the Ocean Lady into port," it said. "Their goal is to ensure the security of Canada's borders while facilitating the entry of legitimate travellers and goods. The CBSA works closely with domestic and international partners to combat irregular migration to Canada, including smuggling and trafficking in persons. The RCMP and CBSA will continue to collaborate in the investigation within their respective mandates," he said. Ten years ago, in the summer of 1999, four ships smuggled close to 600 Chinese migrants to the West Coast.