Canada’s illiberal turn on asylum

Posted by admin on Aug 23rd, 2010

Populist politicians have seized on the Sun Sea Tamil refugees to ramp up anti-immigrant rhetoric, reneging on human rights., Monday 23 August 2010

Earlier this month, a boat carrying 492 Tamils claiming to be refugees from Sri Lanka’s recently ended 26-year civil war arrived in Canada on the MV Sun Sea, having set sail two and half months earlier. Canada’s Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) is now processing the asylum claims of those on board. While the 492 refugee claimants represent only around 2% of Canada’s annual refugee intake, the MV Sun Sea has been taken on as a symbol of the spectre of a refugee influx, notably by the conservative National Post newspaper and Stephen Harper’s Conservative government. A former chair of the IRB has disputed the public safety minister’s claim that smugglers and terrorists were on board the ship.

Before each MV Sun Sea asylum case has had a chance to be reviewed, the idea that the ship represents a “public safety” problem and the tip of a “refugee influx” has come to dominate discussion of the MV Sun Sea, which risks influencing the cases of the asylum seekers, as well as effecting changes in Canadian law.

Although a 1985 supreme court ruling guarantees constitutional charter rights to refugee claimants in Canada, the government has indicated that it is reviewing relevant legislation in order to deter further ships. The prime minister, Stephen Harper, has argued that the Conservative government “will not hesitate to strengthen the laws if we have to”.

With this heightened focus on the spectre of an asylum seeker influx, Canada shows signs of heading the way of Australia, which briefly stopped accepting refugees from Sri Lanka this year, on the argument that the situation in the country has improved sufficiently since the end of the conflict in 2009 – although Australia’s own human rights commission expressed concern at the decision, which has since been revoked. As Australia went to the polls last week, the asylum debate between the two main parties came down to an argument about which island to detain them on, and the UN high commissioner for refugees has expressed concern that the number of Afghan refugees accepted by Australia has declined since last year. It’s alarming that a similar tone has begun to surface in Canada over the last few weeks, with calls to “turn back” the ships before they reach Canadian waters.

Immigration lawyers have pointed out that the boats carrying asylum seekers can’t be turned back in international waters, as their right to life entails their refugee status must be determined through a fair trial, rather than on the high seas before it can be judged whether they have a valid fear of persecution. The MV Sun Sea has captured the public imagination, but it presents a distorted view of the process of Canada’s refugee system: contrary to the perception of a “refugee influx”, in which anyone who comes to Canada by boat gets a free pass, Canada last year cut its refugee targets for 2010, and more and more failed claimants are being sent back. And while it has been argued that many on board the ships are not genuine asylum seekers, of 76 Sri Lankan Tamils who arrived in Canada by boat last October, none were declared ineligible to make a claim for asylum.

Paul Dewar, an opposition MP for the New Democratic party, has argued that the government should concentrate on helping Sri Lanka rebuild after its devastating civil war, rather than focusing on turning Tamils away from Canada. At the very least, Canada should make sure Australia’s poisonous discourse on refugees does not reach its shores.

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