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Wednesday, July 21, 1999 Published at 14:53 GMT 15:53 UK

World: Americas

Canada catches 'illegal immigrants'

The UN says Canada has the world's highest quality of life

More than 120 ethnic Chinese people have been discovered hidden in the hold of a cargo vessel off Canada's western coast.

The detainees, mainly men, were taken to a military base near Victoria, British Columbia, where immigration officials began interviewing them.

[ image:  ]
Police and coastguard officials say the unmarked ship was listing to one side when it was spotted by aircraft making its way along a remote section of coastline.

Authorities believe it could be the largest human smuggling operation discovered on the north Pacific coast.

"We're assuming they are people who don't have legal status," said an immigration official.

"If they don't claim refugee status ... then we're looking at deportation."

It was stopped by the coastguard on Tuesday off Canada's west coast, about 200km northwest of Vancouver.

Huge payments

George Varnai, regional manager of the Victoria office of Citizenship and Immigration, said the vessel probably came from South-East Asia.

[ image: Canada is a desirable locaction for immigrants]
Canada is a desirable locaction for immigrants
"The vessel had no markings, no flag, no name and no normally available identification ... Nothing of this magnitude has happened before on the West Coast in terms of smuggling."

None of the passengers are believed to have needed emergency medical attention.

Immigration officials say the case bears all the signs of a human smuggling operation run by organised crime.

Illegal aliens smuggled in by boat can pay up to $27,000 for their passage and those who cannot pay in full must work off their debt through indenture and slavery.

Canadian police say two of the passengers jumped from the vessel and tried to swim ashore but were quickly detained.

Officials say they do not know whether it was heading to Canada or the United States.

Canada has a large Chinese community, although it has attempted to restrict immigration in recent years.

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