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Tamil Boat People Seek Asylum in Canada

The United Nations refugee agency reports that all 490 Tamil passengers on a cargo ship that landed in Vancouver, Canada, recently are seeking asylum. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR, says it is encouraged by the way Canada is handling the cases of the Tamil nationals who fled Sri Lanka several months ago.

The Tamil boat people's odyssey across the Pacific Ocean aboard the cramped cargo ship reportedly began in April. It ended last Friday when the boat, the Sun Sea, docked at Vancouver Island in British Columbia.

Most of the 490 passengers are men, but the group also includes dozens of women and children. The Canadian Border Services Agency, which had been tracking the vessel, took custody of the passengers as they disembarked.

The U.N. refugee agency commends the manner in which Canadian authorities treated the Tamils. UNHCR spokesman Andrej Mahecic says the people were given food and water, and they received proper medical care.

"The UNHCR supports the important work of the law enforcement agencies in combating human smuggling - an issue that has received much attention in relation to the Sun Sea case," said Mahecic. "It is nonetheless important to recognize that while refugees and migrants might use the same means of transportation, sometimes illegal, refugees are a distinct group with critical protection needs. It is not a crime to seek asylum."

The 25-year civil war between the Sri Lankan government and Tamil Tiger rebels ended more than a year ago. In the final stages of the war, an estimated 7,000 ethnic Tamil civilians reportedly were killed.

More than 200,000 Tamils were interned in camps for months, while the government processed the inhabitants to identify Tamil Tiger members.

The Sri Lankan government rejects calls by the United Nations for an international, independent investigation into alleged war crimes committed by both the government and the rebels.

During the war, most Tamils fleeing persecution were granted asylum. Although the war has ended, the UNHCR says Tamils might still have legitimate reasons for seeking asylum. UNHCR's Mahejic, however, says the situation in Sri Lanka has changed. So the agency is revising the guidelines that governments should follow in reviewing requests for asylum.

"Those guidelines include our recommendation that in light of the improved security situation since the end of Sri Lanka's conflict in May 2009, claims by asylum seekers from that country should be considered on their individual merits rather than on a group basis," said Mahecic.

UNHCR statistics show there are nearly 150,000 refugees from Sri Lanka in 64 countries. Most are in India, followed by France and Canada. The agency also says Switzerland, Malaysia and Canada lead the list of the top 10 countries hosting Sri Lanka asylum seekers.