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US, Canada monitor ship said full of Sri Lankan refugees

[AFP, Thursday, 5 August 2010 08:29 No Comment]

Sri Lankan war-displaced civilians look on at a state-run internment camp in Vavuniya in 2009 The United States and Canada said Wednesday they are monitoring a ship said to be packed with Tamil refugees bound for Canada as they flee post-war persecution in Sri Lanka.

David Poopalapillai, a spokesman for Canadian Tamils, dismissed what he called mere allegations that the asylum seekers included members of the separatist Tamil Tigers, outlawed as terrorists by both Ottawa and Washington.

Interviewed by AFP, Poopalapillai expressed concern for the health and safety of the Sri Lankan passengers, most of them Tamils, who are packed into what he said is a "very small ship" that is not built for ocean voyages.

Matthew Chandler, a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), told AFP: "We are aware of the vessel, and are monitoring its progress. Should an emergency arise, the United States will respond appropriately."

But he added: "We do not know definitively how many passengers are currently aboard, nor can we confirm the nationality of the passengers."

A DHS official told AFP on the condition of anonymity that the "ship is expected to land in Vancouver, Canada in mid-August."

He also said he could not confirm media reports that some of the ship’s passengers were members of the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Ealam, who were finally defeated last year by government troops in a 40-year civil war.

A Canadian Foreign Ministry official said Canada "is aware of reports published in the media suggesting that a ship coming from southeast Asia could be headed to Canada," but declined to comment on "operational" matters.

Poopalapillai, the spokesman for the Canadian Tamil Congress, said the "information that we have from the Canadian government officials, from the other media sources is, clearly they think the ship is very close to Canada."

He said: "We were told that they are men, women and children on board and they are all from Sri Lanka, mostly Tamils."

He accused the Sri Lankan government of regularly spreading allegations that refugees aboard ships fleeing Sri Lanka belong to the Tamil Tigers.

None of the 76 Tamils who arrived in Canada last year was proven to be a member of the outlawed group, he said.

"They were detained based on these allegations. Our government officials went through case by case and they are free now," he said, adding they were now being considered for refugee status in Canada.

He complained the media focused on "criminality," including trafficking in persons, when it should focus on the human reasons for people fleeing Sri Lanka.

"Why are these people fleeing? Look at the root cause," he said. "It’s is very terrible things, extremely hostile conditions in their home country."

[Full Coverage]

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