08/05/2011 12:08 EDT | Updated 10/05/2011 05:12 EDT

Authorities busted 3-4 human smuggling ops bound for Canada: Kenney

BANGKOK - Immigration Minister Jason Kenney says authorities have headed off as many as four human-smuggling operations bound for Canada in the last year.

Kenney says the "three or four" operations were in various stages of planning and execution, including one in which fishing boats were ferrying people out to a ship intending to smuggle them into Canada.

The operations preceded the seizure of a ship, the Alicia, by the Indonesian navy last month.

It was carrying close to 90 Sri Lankan Tamils believed to be headed to Canada or possibly New Zealand.

Kenney is pushing legislation to combat human smuggling.

He says the government stepped up intelligence operations after two ships were discovered carrying nearly 800 Tamil migrants off the B.C. coast — the Ocean Lady in 2009 and the Sun Sea last August.

Canada has dispatched a task force to work with authorities in Thailand along with those of other countries, including Australia and New Zealand.

The coalition "has done an excellent job of identifying the tactics and movements of these three or four syndicates who are taking down payments, promising people voyages and doing the logistics to get them to Canada," Kenney said Friday from Thailand.

He said meetings this week with local authorities and task-force members in Thailand underscored for him that "the syndicates continue to be very active" despite the successes of the last year.

"We are aware of many would-be customers of smuggling syndicates who have actually made down payments and have been waiting, in some instances for over a year, for the call to be boarded to come to Canada," he told a teleconference.

"There is still very active recruitment of customers and these syndicates continue to try to find the vessels they need to bring large numbers of people to Canada."

Human smuggling is already a crime in Canada, but there have been few successful prosecutions.

The government says its Preventing Human Smugglers from Abusing Canada's Immigration System Act would boost prosecutions and deter queue-jumping in the immigration system by making it easier to convict smugglers and imposing mandatory prison sentences.