Shameful Behaviour: The Canadian State and Tamil Refugees

Posted by admin on Aug 18th, 2010

By Rachel Avery and Dan Kellar – August 18, 2010

Once again, the approach of a ship carrying refugees has been met by racist hostility and unfounded accusations of terrorism. The arrival of the MV Sun Sea to the shores of Vancouver Island has seen an outpouring of explicitly racist, anti-immigrant discourse throughout Canada. In a country which would like to consider itself a champion of humanitarianism, it should be shocking that the government’s racist treatment of these refugees has been largely met with support and further racism rather than with disgust and protest. The actions of Public Safety Minister Vic Toews and the Canada Border Services Agency in response to this situation are abhorrent; these policies must be challenged along with the racism that supports them.

The MV Sun Sea, carrying almost 500 Tamil refugees, reached the harbour of Esquimalt, British Columbia last Friday. Tamils have faced mass atrocities perpetrated by the Sri Lankan government throughout the bloody 26-year “civil war” between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil population, which, despite its official end last year, did not resolve tensions between the two groups. Many Tamils have fled their homes to escape persecution, and in the past 2 years Canada has accepted more than 90 percent of refugee claimants from Sri Lanka. Last year, the Ocean Lady landed in Canada with 76 Tamils on board, causing a similar panic to that occurring around the MV Sun Sea. The Canadian Government saw fit to detain the passengers of the Ocean Lady based on unfounded suspicions. In spite of Ottawa trying to use Section 86 of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, which allows for secret evidence in closed hearings, all the men were eventually released when the Canada Border Services Agency was forced to admit they had no evidence of any terrorist connections. The targeting of those on the MV Sun Sea is similarly unfounded and unjust.

Before these refugees had even reached our shores, they were already being described in racist and hysterical terms. The pernicious and prominent use of the term “illegal” and the malicious labeling of refugees as “criminals” and “terrorists” should be sickening. This is the epitome of racial prejudice; these 490 asylum-seekers have been presumed to be potential terrorists and subsequently jailed because of their country of origin, viewed as guilty by the government and many Canadians before their arrival. While the government and the media talk about a need to deter “criminals” from viewing this land as a safe haven, they continue to make and support increasingly exclusionary policies that serve to criminalise those seeking humanitarian refuge and freedom. The language of describing migrants as “human cargo” is similarly vile; it is a dehumanizing narrative which frames migration in fundamentally exploitative terms.

People in this country seem to have lost the awareness that a refugee is a person fleeing political or personal persecution. The people who risked their lives to travel to Canada on the MV Sun Sea are people who fled their homes to save their lives. Canada’s response has been to jail them. Canadians should be outraged. This unfortunately does not seem to be the case. Instead, the few social justice advocates who have the compassion to stand for migrant justice for all are themselves being targeted in the public sphere, and face of accusations of being “terrorist sympathizers”.

Broader social justice movements need to rally behind those who are already standing up, and behind the 490 people who are being condemned to detention for no reasons other than racism and hysteria. For some, there is no choice around whether or not to stand up for migrant justice—it is experienced as a responsibility, a sense that must spread throughout and beyond social justice movements. This is a time for unflinching solidarity and compassion. This is a time to fight back against racism and colonial attitudes of entitlement and superiority.

This national turn against refugees is not an isolated incident. It is part of an ongoing attack on migrants that has seen American-style immigration raids on the streets of Toronto; it has seen the notion of “reasonable accommodation”, and accompanying xenophobia and simplistic caricatures of culture, creep into the formal public discourse; it has seen new waves of hate crimes perpetrated against migrant communities at their places of worship and in their own neighbourhoods; it has seen the targeting of migrant justice advocates; and it has seen a shocking increase of openly racist discourse in our media.

Considering our history, though, this should not come as a surprise; indeed, it all fits neatly into Canada’s long history of racism and colonialism. It fits in so well that the broader public and even liberal discourse right now sounds inseparable from that being put forward by the Aryan Guard in Calgary and known Neo-Nazi organizer Paul Fromm in Victoria. While people should not be surprised that this is the case, they should be angry—and they should mobilise. Such racism is unacceptable; it should have no safe haven in our communities. We must consistently confront these racist and colonial discourses and those who preach and practise such hate in our communities.

This issue is one of racism, and also one of colonialism; it is not insignificant that the point of arrival for the MV Sun Sea is on the coast of so-called British Columbia. The coast and mountains are almost entirely unceded Indigenous territory for which no treaties exist. That the political context which Tamils are fleeing from is similarly a conflict over sovereignty and territory is an important part of this story; so is the recognition that all people on this land who are not part of Indigenous nations are here because of histories of migration and a history of colonialism. To quote a prominent migrant justice organization, “no one is illegal, Canada is illegal.”

The Tamil people who were aboard the MV Sun Sea are members of a population that has had their territory stolen and their sovereignty denied. Since the end of the “civil war” in Sri Lanka, there has been an ever-shrinking amount of humanitarian safe space for the persecuted Tamil minority. These 490 people boarded ships headed for Canada seeking asylum in what is alleged to be a safe haven country with an official doctrine of so-called multiculturalism, a country that is also the home of the largest Tamil diasporic population. Instead of safety, these people are being put into prisons in a country which is essentially saying to them that they are unwanted and unacceptable. It should be clear that this practice and these policies of official racism are what are unacceptable. It is the responsibility of all people, especially those in social justice movements, to make sure that there is safe space in this country for these people and for all people who come here as refugees, and that we also continue to make safe spaces for all people who are targeted on a daily basis because their very existence challenges the dominant norms of our colonial supremacist culture.

With respect to the people who arrived on Canada’s shores aboard the MV Sun Sea, the call from people across this land should be: Let Them Stay, Let Them be Free.

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