Local groups and individuals demand immediate release of refugees; provide compassionate alternative to government and media hysteria and xenophobia.

Posted by admin on Sep 12th, 2010

by Andre Guimond, Vancouver Media Co-op

At first, it was hard to tell if there was anyone inside the drab brown brick detention center. The four security guards and a few RCMP cars were a clue, though: someone must be in there. And, if you looked closely, you could see the small children of the recently-landed Tamil refugees clambering up into a window set far back from the road, trying to get a better look through the bars at where all the noise was coming from. A man with a high-powered camera zoomed in to find ear-to-ear smiles radiating from the excited kids, and the crowd banged on, buoyed by the children’s delight at the cacophony of pots, pans, drums and tambourines, and outpouring of compassion and support.

Close to 100 people gathered outside the Burnaby Youth Custody Services Center on Saturday in a loud show of solidarity for the much-maligned asylum seekers. The “noise rally” was held to “let [the Tamil refugees] know that there are people here that care about them and support them and want them to stay,” said Alex Mah of No One is Illegal-Vancouver (NOII), the immigrant and refugee rights group that organized the demonstration.

Almost 90 women and children are being detained at the center for “processing” after arriving with 400 others aboard the MV Sun Sea nearly a month ago, fleeing from war and persecution in Sri Lanka.

After being turned away in Australia, the refugees set sail to Canada. Our international legal commitments under the Refugee Convention and our “compassion and fairness … a source of great pride for Canadians,” as the Citizen and Immigration Office boasts, might have given them hope to find a safe haven and new home in Canada.

Far from being warmly welcomed, though, the Tamils landed in Victoria amidst a wave of anti-refugee hysteria whipped up by the government and media, kicked off by Minister of Public Safety Vic Toews calling the 490 passengers aboard the ship “suspected human smugglers and terrorists” before they landed, and continued with terrified cries that the refugees were here to suck Canada’s welfare system dry and steal our jobs.

“The reason we wind up having to pay for refugees is because the government chooses to imprison them and treat them like criminals – that’s a huge and avoidable cost,” said Mah.

“We have to put these 500 refugees in the context of the fact that every year Canada accepts less than 0.1 percent of the world’s refugee population of over 20 million people,” he stressed. “Canada has obligations under well-established international laws to let these refugees in, whether or not they have proper documents, because they’re fleeing from danger. We need to be talking about these facts with each other, writing to papers, combating the sensationalism and fear mongering around the ‘flood’ of refugees we’re hearing about everywhere.”

A new Angus Reid poll this week found that 46% of Canadians believe immigration is having a “negative effect” on the country, and almost half wanted the Tamil refugees deported. Intolerance, racism and hatred seem to have replaced “compassion and fairness” as the highest of all Canadian values, and a guilty-before-proven-refugee system has been implemented to complement our new conservative ethos.

However, some still have good reason to hope for a kinder Canada. “We are so happy to see this kind of support, to feel this love,” said Sumudini, a Tamil woman who left Sri Lanka with her family 14 years ago and eventually settled in BC. She had come to the event with her daughter to help welcome the next generation of her people’s refugees.

“It’s heart-warming to see this kind of reaction and how much people care and want the refugees to stay,” said Sozan Savehilaghi, also of NOII. “But it’s bittersweet that they’re locked up in the first place.”

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