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Thursday, 11 May, 2000, 07:34 GMT 08:34 UK
Boat people sent back to China

A rusty ship heads for Canada with its human cargo
Canada has returned 90 boat people to China in one of the country's biggest mass deportations in recent history.

The immigrants were sent back amid tight security under an agreement with Chinese authorities after their claims for refugee status were turned down.

They were among almost 600 Chinese who were smuggled across the Pacific last summer by organised gangs on rusty decrepit ships.
Immigrants clinging to rocks off coast
Immigrants cling to rocks after landing in Canada

Their arrival sparked intense debate over Canada's asylum and immigration laws.

Mass deportations are rare in Canada, but the government says sending the boat people back will help deter future human trafficking.

Asian smuggling gangs charge would-be immigrants up to C$60,000 ($40,000) each to sneak them into North America.

Although the boats arrived in Canada, it is believed most of the people on board were bound for the United States, where the gangs would have forced them to work off the cost of their journey in conditions bordering on slavery.

Co-operation

Canada and China agreed to crack down on the human smugglers, known as snakeheads, during a recent visit to Beijing by Canadian Immigration Minister Elinor Caplan.

It is this kind of co-operation that shows our two countries are concerned about human smuggling

Immigration official Murray Wilkinson

However, some refugee groups accused the government of being heavy-handed.

They pointed to China's human rights record and questioned how the returning boat people would be treated.

They said Canada should accept more refugees, rather than resorting to mass deportations.

Children

The Chinese-Canadian Association in Vancouver also accused immigration officials of using "paramilitary" tactics during the operation to remove the boat people, who included four children.

The deportees were loaded on to a chartered aircraft at a small airport near Vancouver after being taken from a detention centre in the middle of the night.

Officials, who had hoped to keep the operation secret until the plane took off, refused to disclose its destination for security reasons.

The government, which is expecting more boat people this summer, said it did not know what would happen to the deportees when they were back in China.

But it said it had received assurances from the authorities that the four children would not be detained.

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