(CNN) -- Almost 500 Sri Lankan migrants are in Canadian custody after officials Thursday boarded a small ship suspected of human smuggling off the coast of British Columbia, according to Canadian Public Safety Minister Vic Toews.
Canadian officials had been monitoring the vessel, MV Sun Sea, after its departure from Sri Lanka nearly three months ago, according to Toews. The ship first stopped in Thailand before crossing the Pacific and moving up the west coast of North America, Toews said.
Toews indicated that officials believe the ship is "part of a larger human smuggling and human trafficking enterprise," and there are concerns "that there are elements of the LTTE and Tamil Tigers on board this vessel." The Tamil Tigers, also known as the Liberation Tigers of Eelam, are a militant separatist group who have been accused of war crimes and played a significant and controversial role in the Sri Lankan civil war.
Krisna Saravanamuttu, a spokesman for the National Council of Canadian Tamils, said similar fears were expressed in May when 76 Tamils arrived aboard the Ocean Lady. But, he said, no evidence has been uncovered to support those fears.
Saravanamuttu said the Sun Sea is believed to be carrying primarily Tamils, Sri Lanka's largest minority population. Tamils, he said, have been seeking asylum in Canada since the 1980s because of Sri Lanka's lengthy and bloody civil war. Now, he said, Canada's 300,000 Tamils is the largest grouping outside Sri Lanka.
Toews, however, said that regardless of whether the Sun Sea's passengers are regular Tamils fleeing their devastated homeland or militants fleeing the Sri Lankan military, the ship had to be stopped.
"It's very important that Canada deals with this situation in a very clear and decisive way in order to send the message that human smuggling and human trafficking is not acceptable," Toews said.
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police said that officials made contact with the ship once it came within 12 nautical miles of Canada's border, placing them in Canadian territorial water. Toews told CNN that the people on board, "indicated that they were all claiming refugee status and under Canadian law, they have to be processed."
In the meantime, Saravanamuttu told CNN that The Tamil Refugee Coordinating Committee has sent representatives to Victoria in order to ensure that "the refugees are given access to adequate legal council."
Additionally, the National Council of Canadian Tamils has begun preparing the Tamil community for the potential new arrivals. Saravanamuttu also said that officials have told him a large number of passengers were under the age of 13.