Lankan human smuggler arrested in France

The suspected organizer of the voyage of the MV Sun Sea, the human smuggling ship that brought almost 500 Sri Lankan asylum seekers to Canada in 2010, has been arrested in France, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) said.

Thayakaran Markandu was being held in custody by French authorities, police said, adding extradition proceedings were underway to bring him to Canada, where he could face life imprisonment and a $1-million fine.

The RCMP and Interpol had been looking for Markandu, a Sri Lankan citizen, since last month when he was charged over his alleged role in the MV Sun Sea operation, which was the work of smugglers based in Bangkok.

The National Post reported last year that Markandu had been arrested in Bangkok when the smuggling operation was underway, and that he was carrying a French passport. Although he was caught with supplies for the ship, Thai authorities let him go with a fine.

He is the first person to face charges over the MV Sun Sea. The RCMP said in a brief statement it would not provide more information because the investigation remained active and was before the courts.

“We would like to take this opportunity to commend the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, Interpol and the French authorities for their efforts in apprehending Markandu,” Public Safety Minister Vic Toews and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney said in a joint statement.

“Canada is a generous and compassionate country that welcomes newcomers. But no Canadian thinks it’s acceptable to abuse our immigration system for financial gain through the despicable crime of human smuggling.”

The MV Sun Sea was intercepted off the coast of B.C. in August 2010. On board, Canadian authorities found 492 Sri Lankans, all of whom have since claimed refugee status. While immigration officials have been dealing with the claims, the RCMP has been trying to identify the organizers behind the ship.

Markandu had been on the police radar since June 2010, when he was arrested at a Bangkok apartment building together with the owner of the MV 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 RCMP 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.

Refugee hearings for the migrants who travelled aboard the two ships are only now getting underway. Almost all are members of Sri Lanka’s ethnic Tamil minority and claim they will face persecution at the hands of the Sri Lankan government, pro-government militias and Tamil rebels if they are sent home.

But while Canada has long taken in Sri Lankan refugees, since the end of the country’s civil war the acceptance rate has dropped to 57 per cent from 76 per cent in 2010 and 91 per cent in 2009. Of the 568 migrants on the MV Sun Sea and MV Ocean Lady, only four had been accepted as refugees as of a month ago. Several others have been ordered deported due to alleged involvement with the Tamil Tigers rebels.  (Global BC)