Tamil claimaints are drop in the bucket

Posted by admin on Oct 24th, 2009

Peter Showler, Citizen Special. October 24, 2009

There is something about boats and refugees that sets off strange and histrionic reactions in the minds of Canadians including journalists, politicians and the general public. It probably has something to do with our unconscious comfort in knowing there are thousands of kilometres of Atlantic and Pacific waters that separate us from the human rights abuses and ghastly wars suffered in distant parts of the world.

In 1939, the St. Louis, a German ship out of Hamburg loaded with 906 Jewish refugees was denied access to Canadian ports despite pleas from Jewish Canadians and much public discourse. We were not alone; Cuba, the United States and several Central and South American countries also rejected the human cargo that was forced to return to Hamburg, leaving in its wake a national shame when it was revealed years later that many of the passengers were sent to Nazi concentration camps.

In 1979, waves of sympathy washed across the country for the Vietnamese boat people as our magazines and televisions were filled with pictures of refugees clinging to tiny, overcrowded vessels. Canada accepted more than 50,000 of the boat people, but none arrived by boat on Canadian shores.

In the summer of 1987, a vessel with 174 Sikh refugees was discovered off the coast of Nova Scotia. The government of Brian Mulroney reacted by recalling Parliament in mid-summer to “deal with an issue of national importance,” an extraordinary measure given the relatively modest number of refugees although there was much media speculation about more boats just over the horizon. At the time, there were independence movements in the Punjab, both violent and non-violent, and a solid record of human rights violations by the Indian government against political dissidents. The government paid little attention to the real issue, whether or not the new arrivals were refugees, but focussed on the issues of boats and smugglers. It introduced emergency legislation to give officials greater powers to detain undocumented arrivals and to deal with international smugglers. The opposition vigorously opposed the bill and accused the government of using public hysteria to justify draconian measures. Some parts of the bill eventually became law. It is not known how many of the Sikh claimants were eventually accepted as refugees.

In the summer of 1999, four derelict vessels arrived on the British Columbia coast containing more than 600 refugees from the People’s Republic of China. The occupants of the first vessel were released after a short period of detention. More than 80 per cent of them abandoned their refugee claims and disappeared, presumably to be smuggled into the United States as indentured and illegal workers to pay off their debts to the traffickers. In response, the government detained most of the occupants of the next three vessels while their refugee claims were being decided over the following 18 months. Their continued incarceration was difficult and controversial. Lacking local facilities, a penal institution was re-opened in Prince George, far from experienced interpreters, lawyers, Immigration and Refugee Board facilities and local support for the detainees. Most of the claimants were economic migrants from Fujian Province; less than five per cent of the claims were accepted.

For refugee advocates, it was a scandal that people who were not criminals and possibly trafficking victims could be incarcerated in Canada for so long. Approximately half of the original arrivals were eventually deported to China; most of the others disappeared and are presumed to be in the United States. From the government’s view, the long-term detention and deportation of the boat claimants deprived the traffickers of the income they would have extorted from the migrants once they were placed in illegal work situations. It was believed but not proven that the traffickers diverted future ships to more porous shores in Central and South America.

Many critics allege that the government’s reaction was disproportionate. In 1999, nearly 30,000 refugee claims were made in Canada, approximately half of them coming through the United States. More refugee claimants from the People’s Republic of China entered Canada through Vancouver International Airport than from the four boats. Many of them had also used the services of smugglers to obtain false documents but few if any were detained. The difference in detention policy lay in the means of arrival: individual travel versus a boatload of claimants.

Now we have another derelict vessel arriving on the West Coast with 74 passengers, a miniscule number compared to the more than 36,000 refugee claims made last year. The new arrivals appear to be Sri Lankan, Tamil and male.

They have been arrested and detained which means they lack visas and are inadmissible to Canada. If they wish to remain in Canada as refugees, there are questions to be asked and procedures to follow.

Should they continue to be detained and are they eligible to apply for refugee status? These are difficult questions for the Immigration and Refugee Board and the Canadian Border Services Agency. They must be answered against the backdrop of a long civil war where both sides, the Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan government, were guilty of massive human rights violations. The Sri Lankan government continues to detain 300,000 civilian Tamils while it denies access to international human rights observers.

As young Tamil males, some of the passengers may have a well-founded fear of persecution. Others may themselves have been involved in the commission of human rights abuses and be ineligible for asylum. Others may be economic migrants leaving an unhappy country. The fact that they paid a smuggler to reach Canada by boat does not answer any of those questions.

In regard to their continued detention and their refugee claims, each case will have to be decided on its own merits. Government pronouncements about getting tough on refugees will not assist. Neither will public speculation about shadowy smugglers and more boats on the horizon.

Peter Showler is director of the Refugee Forum at the Human Rights Research and Education Centre, University of Ottawa. He is a former chairman of the Immigration and Refugee Board and is the author of the book, Refugee Sandwich, truthful fiction about Canada’s refugee system.

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