Canadian Federal police on Wednesday charged a Sri Lankan national with human smuggling for organizing travel for hundreds of Tamils aboard a rickety cargo ship to Canada, where they claimed asylum.
A warrant has been issued for the arrest of Thayakaran Markandu, who is currently believed to be living abroad, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police said in a statement.
"We are continuing to work with our international law enforcement partners to locate and arrest him," RCMP Superintendent Derek Simmonds said. "Once he is in custody we can begin the process of having him extradited to Canada to stand trial."
Canadian border officials detained 492 Tamils who arrived in August 2010 aboard the ship MV Sun Sea. Another 76 were arrested in 2009 when they arrived on Canada's west coast aboard another freighter, the MV Ocean Lady.
Canada and Sri Lanka alleged that the Sun Sea and Ocean Lady migrants may have included members of the Tamil Tigers, outlawed in Canada as a terror group before their defeat in 2009.
A conviction for organizing illegal entry into Canada carries a potential penalty of life imprisonment or a $1,000,000 fine, or both.
The charge comes three weeks after the Conservative government introduced a bill it says will make it easier to prosecute and jail human smugglers.
“Canada is a generous and compassionate country that welcomes newcomers,” Public Safety Minister Vic Toews said in a statement. “But no Canadian thinks it’s acceptable to abuse our immigration system for financial gain through the despicable crime of human smuggling.”
Since the Sun Sea smugglers began organizing their trip to Vancouver Island, charging up to tens of thousands of dollars for passage, Canadian police have been working in Southeast Asia to stop migrant ships before they head out to sea.
Even before the Sun Sea left Thailand for Canada, Markandu was apparently on the police radar. Royal Thai Police arrested a man by that name in a Bangkok apartment building along with the owner of the Sun Sea and two Sri Lankan-Canadians from Toronto.
At the time, passengers were being moved from Bangkok to southern Thailand, where they were ferried to the ship in fishing boats. Thai, Canadian and Australian police were trying to track the operation, which led them to Markandu and the others.
During the raid, Thai police seized 529 litres of engine lubricant in dozens of plastic oil drums, sacks of food and engine parts. Police photographed Markandu posing in front of the supplies. He was using a French passport at the time that identified him as a native of Jaffna in northern Sri Lanka.
But the arrests resulted in only charges of improper storage of materials and the men were released after paying a 10,000 Thai Baht fine, about $320. The Mounties would not confirm the man arrested in Bangkok was the same man they had charged.
Markandu is the fifth Sri Lankan to be charged with smuggling migrants to Canada by sea since the MV Ocean Lady arrived in October 2009 carrying 76 passengers and crew. Last June, four suspected organizers of the Ocean Lady were arrested around Toronto.
While Canada has long taken in Sri Lankan refugees, since the end of the conflict the acceptance rate has dropped to 57% from 76% in 2010 and 91% in 2009. Of the 568 migrants on the Sun Sea and Ocean Lady, only four had been accepted as refugees as of a month ago. Several others have been ordered deported because of alleged involvement with the LTTE.