06/14/2011 05:55 EDT | Updated 08/14/2011 05:12 EDT

Ocean Lady Human Smuggling Ring Leads To Toronto Arrests


UPDATED: THE CANADIAN PRESS -- Four men have been charged with human-smuggling offences in connection with a ship that brought 76 Sri Lankan refugee claimants to British Columbia, RCMP said Tuesday.

The four arrested in Toronto were allegedly involved in organizing the 2009 smuggling operation on the Ocean Lady, and were active leaders on the vessel, police said.

Each of the four are charged under human-smuggling legislation with organizing entry into Canada under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, said RCMP Supt. Tom Jones.

They have been remanded in custody and will be transported to Vancouver where they will appear before a judge.

Most of the migrants on board the Ocean Lady paid thousands of dollars for the illegal voyage to Canada.

Canadian border security officials seized the freighter off the B.C. coast on Oct. 17, 2009. All of the passengers on board immediately made refugee claims.

"Our investigators have worked extremely hard for the last 20 months to gather sufficient evidence to support charges today," Jones told a news conference in Toronto on Tuesday afternoon.

Anyone convicted of helping more than 10 undocumented migrants into Canada can face up life in prison.

Vic Toews, the federal minister of public safety, said in Ottawa the case of the Ocean Lady and other migrant vessels shows stronger legislation is needed in Canada.

"We're committed to bringing in stronger legislation that preserves the integrity of Canadian borders and our immigration system," he said.

The government expects to bring in new anti-smuggling legislation later this month.

Toews said Canada needs to be prepared in case more migrant ships show up, citing "deficiencies in the law."

"We know that human smugglers are targeting Canada and we need to be prepared. We want to be able to say to Canadians we have done everything that we can in order to ensure that the appropriate legislative framework is in place."

Immigration Minister Jason Kenney said Canada has a system in place to determine who is a refugee, and those who pay criminal organizations to be smuggled in are breaking the law.

"Coming through a smuggling operation is the worst and most dangerous way of coming to Canada," Kenney said. "These large-scale operations fundamentally undermine public confidence in the fairness of our immigration and refugee systems, which is why our bill seeks to create deterrence for people becoming customers of the smuggling operations."