HAMBURG, West Germany (AP) _ The 155 Sri Lankan refugees rescued from lifeboats off Newfoundland began their voyage in West Germany and paid $2,500 each for ship passage to Canada, police said Friday.

Investigators believe the Sri Lankan Tamils were victims of an international plot to make a profit off people seeking asylum in North America, Hamburg Police Chief Dieter Heering told a news conference. He said three people were in custody and others were sought.

More voyages to Canada apparently were planned for other Tamils still in West Germany, said another police official, Guenter Heerd. Heering and Heerd spoke at a news conference after days of speculation about the refugees, set adrift on the high seas.

Authorities are looking for a Honduran-registered ship, the Aurigae, and its four-man crew. Police say the crew received roughly $400,000 in money, jewelry and other valuables from the 155 Tamils and then apparently later cast them off in two lifeboats.

Police believe $350,000 went to the captain, whom Heering identified as Wolfgang Bindel, 45, of Nordenham, West Germany. Police said Bindel apparently owned the ship.

The West German ARD television network reported Friday that Norddeich Radio, a marine radio operator on the nation's North Sea coast, had made contact with the Aurigae not far from the Azores, a chain of islands in the Atlantic about 950 miles west of Lisbon, Portugal.

The ship's captain refused comment about Tamil refugees, ARD quoted Norddeich Radio sources as saying. The report could not immediately be confirmed.

In Canada, Gerry Weiner, junior minister of immigration, said the Canadian government will not deport the Tamils to West Germany because it was unlikely any of them had obtained refugee status there.

Joyce Yedid, an attorney in Montreal who is representing some of the Tamils, had told reporters earlier, ''Canada will not deport them even if they came from Germany because Germany very rarely grants refugee status.''

Canadian government policy forbids the deportation of Tamils to Sri Lanka because of the possibility of persecution.

Canada on Thursday flew the Sri Lankan refugees to Montreal and Toronto and issued them one-year residence and work permits while their applications for permanent refugee status are reviewed.

After their rescue Monday, the group of Tamils first maintained they sailed from India. Police said Friday the Tamils came from refugee camps all over West Germany.

Inspector Jack Lavers of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police said in a telephone interview from St. John's, Newfoundland, that he accepted the Hamburg police report, and that it cleared up many questions surrounding the refugees.

About 37,000 Sri Lankans have requested political asylum in West Germany since 1980, according to the Foreign Ministry. Most have been turned down, but they have not been deported because of bloody sectarian strife in Sri Lanka, an island nation off southern India.

Since 1983, Tamil extremists have fought a guerrilla war in Sri Lanka, formerly known as Ceylon. They say they have suffered discrimination and repression by the Buddhist Sinhalese majority and demand a separate homeland in the north. Tamils, most of whom are Hindus, comprise 18 percent of Sri Lanka's 15 million people.

Two Tamils and a Turk were in custody in Hamburg on suspicion of helping arrange the voyage. Heering said the Tamils, arrested Thursday, admitted involvement, but he gave no details.

He said police were also investigating a Hamburg shipping agent suspected of involvement.

The Aurigae left Brake port, 20 miles northwest of Bremen, early July 28 without harbor clearance for departure, Heering said.

Police said the crew of the 425-ton motor vessel, which was built in 1963, consisted of only the captain and three untrained Tamils.

The 155 Tamil refugees were housed in the ship's storage room and were fed only cooked rice, Heering said.

Asked about the small number of crew for a West Germany-to-Canada voyage, Heering said, ''We have seen the most hair-raising things here.''

He said the 155 Tamils were brought by bus to the port from throughout West Germany.

Thirty-eight Tamils who had paid arrived at Brake too late and returned home, police said.

Police said they did not know at what location at sea the Tamils were cast off, or whether the captain had originally planned to take them into port.

A full list of the refugees who boarded the Aurigae was found in the apartment of one of the Tamils arrested, Heering said.

The Canadian consulate in Hamburg got an anonymous tip July 25 that Tamils planned to leave on a ship for Canada, and a local police investigation led to the arrest of the two Tamils Thursday, Heering said.