Public rage against Tamil refugees has a nasty, xenophobic odour

Posted by admin on Aug 21st, 2010

Why this mean-spirited furore over a few Tamils? Perhaps it’s because they aren’t white
By Stephen Hume, Vancouver Sun August 21, 2010

Another refugee ship arrives on Canada’s shores — carrying Tamil refugees fleeing a country scarred by decades of grisly atrocities, on both sides of a protracted civil war — and once again there erupts a mean-spirited fury worthy of Ebenezer Scrooge. There are demands that the refugees be arbitrarily refused the right to land; that they be given food and sent back to whatever fate awaits them; that their ship should have been intercepted on the high seas; that they be diverted to other countries in South Asia, as if Pakistan with 14 million internal refugees from floods or Afghanistan, the world’s leading source of asylum-seekers at the moment, were in any position to help.

There’s resentment about providing medical treatment; resentment because we have dreadful conditions on Indian reserves that need to be addressed first (but haven’t for 100 years); resentment because homeless people camp out on the streets of our major cities; resentment because the refugees are to be fed and housed while their pleas are assessed; resentment that Canada’s constitution guarantees everyone the right to “life, liberty and security of the person.”

Why such rage directed at such a minuscule group? These 492 refugee claimants amount to about 1.3 per cent of the refugees who come to Canada each year. Asylum seekers from Sri Lanka are way down the list both now and historically.

In 1956, for example, 200,000 Hungarians fled following a failed revolution. Canada accepted 37,000 of those asylum seekers; that equals the total for all refugees admitted in 2008. Hungarian asylum-seekers
arrived on 200 flights, not one boat.

In 1968, almost 11,000 people fled to Canada from the former Czechoslovakia.

In 1971, 40,000 Americans were granted asylum.

In 1999, Canada granted asylum to 5,000 refugees from the war-torn Balkans.

In 2009, twice as many appeals for refugee status in Canada were filed by people from the United States as by people from Sri Lanka.

Yet let a small group of Tamils arrive by boat begging mercy and all the old bogeymen crawl out of the closet: They might be terrorists; they were brought here by criminals — as were many people escaping East Germany, the Soviet Union, Iran, Argentina, you name the dictatorship; if they are allowed entry, Canada will be overwhelmed by refugee claimants.

What a load of bosh. We have a tough, effective review system to weed out criminals and terrorists among asylum-seekers — although a smart terrorist would arrive by air wearing a three-piece suit and garner much less scrutiny.

Please, can we just let the professionals do their work?

Meanwhile, get a grip, enough with the hyperventilating.

According to the United Nations agency that tracks the ebb and flow of refugees worldwide, Canada is nowhere near inundation by a rising tide of refugees, especially not from Sri Lanka. In fact, refugee claims in Canada have declined 10 per cent since 2008.

Other developed countries are the destinations for most refugees and many more are granted asylum in those countries than here.

For example, of the 377,200 refugee claims filed in the 44 countries at the top of the world’s economic heap, 286,700 were made in the European Union. Only 82,000 were filed in Canada and the U.S. together; 47,000 of those claims were registered in the U.S.

Measured as a ratio of refugee claims to population, Canada doesn’t even make the top 10 nations for asylum seekers. Belgium, Greece, Norway, Sweden, Austria, even tiny Luxembourg deal with more refugee claims on a per-capita basis.

Why this unseemly furore over a few Tamils? Perhaps it’s because they aren’t white.

Raise this uncomfortable theory and a din of sanctimonious denial rises. However, why the fuss over a few Tamils compared with larger numbers of asylum-seekers from Russia or Hungary or the United States? Why aren’t these asylum-seekers subjected to similar vituperation as queue-jumpers?

Like it or not, skin pigment seems a common denominator. Perhaps that’s not surprising. Racial xenophobia has a long and vicious history in British Columbia.

Even before the birth of the province, factions characterized by their whiteness fulminated about the “brown tide” and the “yellow peril.”

When 30,000 mostly white goldseekers flooded into the Fraser Valley in 1858, they were joined by 1,500 Chinese prospectors. This minority was soon subject to editorializing that “the Chinese ulcer is eating into the prosperity of the country and sooner or later must be cut out.”

Not long after, Chinese eateries were forbidden to hire white waitresses, immigration barriers to Asians went up and appropriately coloured European immigrants arrived by the millions.

In Vancouver, long before gunboats turned away Sikh immigrants aboard the infamous Komagata Maru, upright citizens were enthusiastically whipping up the spectre of depraved non-white hordes arriving from a diseased, starving Asia to overwhelm the white settlers, burden taxpayers and sap prosperity.

It was all utter nonsense, of course. In fact, immigrants fleeing wars, famines and depressions in Asia amplified prosperity and enriched culture here.

How we respond to a few Tamils seeking safety and a future for their children says far more about us than it does about them. And what it says so far is rather distasteful.

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