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RCMP confirm death on migrant ship

VANCOUVER - One of the nearly 500 Tamil migrants who set sail for Canada aboard a cramped cargo freighter died just weeks before the ship arrived off the British Columbia coast, the RCMP confirmed Sunday.

The MV Sun Sea arrived near Victoria on Friday carrying about 490 people from war-ravaged Sri Lanka, who are expected to make refugee claims.

"What investigators have passed along to us is that a 37-year-old man did die about three weeks ago while the MV Sun Sea was in international waters," Const. Mike McLaughlin of the RCMP said in an interview.

"Their investigation has determined he died of a sickness; he simply couldn't be treated at sea. There's nothing to indicate any criminal intent."

McLaughlin said the man's body was dumped at sea.

Sarujan Kanapathipillai of the Canadian Tamil Congress said members of his organization have been in touch with some of the migrants, who told them the man left behind a family in Sri Lanka.

"That's only about two weeks ago, so they made it for most of the journey," said Kanapathipillai.

"This person was a father of one, and his child and wife are in Sri Lanka. It shows how desperate these people were to try and get out of Sri Lanka, the conditions they must have been in."

The Vancouver Island Health Authority has said 27 migrants were taken to hospital in Victoria, including two pregnant women who were admitted as a precaution. The majority have since been treated and discharged, and none were in critical condition.

The ship's passengers included more than 350 men, 50 women and 50 children.

Officials with the CBSA were processing the migrants over the weekend as they were transferred to Vancouver-area jails.

There is still little concrete information about the migrants and how they came to set sail for Canada, but more details could emerge in the coming week as the Immigration and Refugee Board holds detention hearings in Vancouver.

The public is typically barred from hearing the details of refugee's detention hearings, but media outlets have applied to attend — a request that was previously granted last October after 76 Tamils arrived on a similar ship, the Ocean Lady.

Initially, those hearings focused on confirming the identities of the migrants, who were detained as the federal government said it was having difficulty determining exactly who they were.

Eventually, the detention hearings — which are held at regular intervals once someone is detained — revealed allegations some of the men were members of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a banned terrorist organization and separatist group that lost a 26-year civil war against Sri Lanka's government last year. Those suspicions were never proven, and, by this past spring, all 76 had been released while they await the outcomes of their refugee claims.

The migrants aboard the Sun Sea can expect something very similar, with this week's hearings likely focusing on their identities and the federal government already signalling it believes there were Tamil Tigers aboard the ship.

Toronto-based immigration lawyer Lorne Waldman, who represents some of the migrants who arrived last year and whose law firm will also be involved with the Sun Sea passengers, said the newly arrived migrants can expect to be held for at least the next several weeks.

"It's not likely that most of these people will have passports, and if they don't them, they have to produce other identity documents," Waldman said in an interview Sunday.

"That will likely keep the people in the detention for a period of time, for one or two or three detention reviews, but at a certain point, if they (the federal government) still haven't found the identity and they can't show they're trying, they (the migrants) can be ordered released."

After that, the issue will turn to whether any of the migrants pose security risks, and the onus will again rest with the federal government to offer evidence some of the migrants are linked to the Tamil Tigers.

Waldman also said the detention reviews will be complicated by the fact that, unlike in the case of the Ocean Lady, there were a significant number of women and children aboard the Sun Sea.

"The key issue will be the women and children, and I think it's extremely important that the children not be separated from their parents, or at least one of their parents," he said. "I think it's likely that the minister will prioritize the children and the women who have children so they can be released."

A review hearing is mandatory 48 hours after someone is detained, again at seven days and then once a month after that.

However, Waldman said that timeline will shift somewhat as the Immigration and Refugee Board wades through hundreds of cases.

"They've got to get through 490 cases, and they're not going to be able to run more than six or eight at a time," said Waldman.

"They're going to have a hard time keeping up."

Tags: canada, immigration, sri lanka
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