Tamils seek asylum after months at sea

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A small cargo ship crammed with hundreds of Tamil asylum-seekers from Sri Lanka docked at a Canadian navy base yesterday after a gruelling three-month journey.

The country's Public Safety Minister, Vic Toews, said 490 people are on board the MV Sun Sea. He said the government was worried they may include members of the rebel Tamil Tigers, whom Canada has labelled terrorists.

MV Sun Sea was boarded by security officials late on Thursday and escorted into port. The government put up a large tent for the asylum-seekers at a military installation yesterday, and jails have been warned they could receive new inmates.

Gary Anandasangaree, a lawyer with the Canadian Tamil Congress, was on the scene as the ship, which measured only 59 metres, arrived. He said he was surprised to find how small it was. "It clearly gives us an idea of the type of conditions that could have been inside. Very cramped, given the size," he said. Several children were believed to be on board.

Mr Toews said all the claims for asylum would be processed and that anyone whose claims were found to be invalid would not be treated as a refugee. Some of those on board are smugglers and terrorists, he added.

MV Sun Sea is said to have neared Australia a few months ago but sailed on for Canada, either because it was turned away or for fear that it would not be allowed to dock.