Tories using migrants as a straw man: MP

Posted by admin on Aug 14th, 2010

By Katie DeRosa, Times Colonist August 14, 2010

The Conservatives are playing “fast and loose” with the term terrorist, to the detriment of legitimate refugees aboard the cargo ship that sailed into Esquimalt Harbour yesterday, say critics of the government’s hard-line response to the issue. “The feds are using the migrants as a straw man to make themselves look strong,” said Keith Martin, Liberal MP for Esquimalt-Juan de Fuca. He was responding to comments from Public Safety Minister Vic Toews that the MV Sun Sea could be under the control of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam — which Canada considers a terrorist organization — and that terrorists and human smugglers are among the 490 Sri Lankans aboard.

“Toews loves to talk about this boat being filled with terrorists and human traffickers,” Martin said.

“But if you’re a trafficker, you don’t get on a boat and spend three months risking your life on a filthy, crowded boat.”

Toews has warned that too lenient an approach could send the message that Canada is a safe haven for Tamil Tigers pursuing their separatist agenda outside Sri Lanka.

Sharryn Aiken, associate dean of law at Queen’s University in Kingston, who specializes in refugee matters, said the vast majority of refugees who come to Canada do so through human smugglers.

“The fact that people have arrived en masse by boat has all of a sudden set off red flags,” she said. “But any given week there are hundreds who arrive as refugees at our airports. They just don’t come in a big group like this.”

The boatload of migrants should be handled the same as any other refugees, she said. “We need to deal with the smugglers … not punish the victims.”

There are reports that two more ships full of Tamil migrants are en route to Canada, but Toews would not confirm that saying only that the arrival of the MV Sun Sea is not an “isolated or independent act.”

Toews stressed that Canada has to deter human smugglers from abusing our immigrant and refugee system, but did not offer any concrete suggestions on how to do this.

Martin suggested Canada work with the UN High Commission for Refugees to set up regional processing centres for refugees in Sri Lanka and other Southeast Asian countries.

Canadian immigration officials in those countries could better distinguish a legitimate refugee from a suspected terrorist, Martin said. It would also give refugees a cheap and safe way to come to Canada and strip the profit motive from human smuggling.

But Aiken warned it could be dangerous for anyone fearing persecution to be seen going into a Canadian embassy.

One school of thought within government circles is that Canada should boost its intelligence capabilities and forge agreements with Thailand and perhaps with other countries in Southeast Asia to encourage them to intercept the boats as soon as they come into their waters. The passengers’ applications for refugee status in Canada could then be processed in those countries, possibly with the help of the United Nations.

Canadian law prohibits Canadian authorities from intercepting a ship in international waters or the waters of another country.

Richard Kurland, a lawyer who specializes in immigration and refugee issues, said the Canadian government is in a tough spot trying to craft a policy that will live up to its international obligations and also allow it to block prospective refugees from landing in Canada by boat.

Kurland predicted Toews will run into a wall of political opposition if he tries to take the country back to the era of “none is too many” — referring to the 1939 decision by Canada and others to turn away the St. Louis, a ship carrying 900 European Jews fleeing Hitler’s Germany. The boat eventually returned to Germany.

Opposition parties have vowed to fight any move to treat claimants arriving by boat differently from other claimants.

Aiken and Martin suggested that Canada focus on working with the international community to sanction the Sri Lankan government for human rights abuses against the Tamil minority.

More than a year after the Sri Lankan government’s defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, international observers have said Tamils are at risk of being jailed or abused by security forces. “Unless we deal with this from a foreign policy point of view, then this problem [of refugees coming to Canada by the boatload] will not stop,” Martin said.

Victoria immigration lawyer Peter Golden agreed. “If these people actually spent four months largely in the hold of a boat that doesn’t appear to be very large, you have to have a good reason to do it. And Canada as a sophisticated country ought to be doing more … to deal with why people are that desperate in Sri Lanka.”

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Migrant Ships Sail Into Canadian History

Examples of migrant ships coming to Canada:

– October 2009: A rusty ship with 76 Tamil men aboard was found off Vancouver Island. As of last month, all 76 were freed from detention awaiting hearings for their refugee claims.

– 1999: Four ships carrying about 600 Chinese passengers arrived off Vancouver Island during the summer. When most of occupants of the first vessel disappeared (it is believed they were smuggled into the United States), those from the three subsequent vessels were kept in detention at Prince George until their refugee claims were processed. They were held about 18 months and many had their claims denied.

– July 1987: 174 Sikhs came ashore near Charlesville, N.S. They had apparently come to the east coast via western Europe where they were denied refugee status. Prime minister Brian Mulroney recalled Parliament during the summer recess and passed emergency rules giving officials greater power to detain undocumented arrivals. Most of the migrants spent about one month in detention in Halifax before being allowed to move to Toronto or Vancouver with a sponsor.

– August 1986: 155 Tamils were rescued off the coast of Newfoundland. They were found drifting in lifeboats by fishermen after two days at sea. They were all granted permits to remain in Canada while their claims were processed. Within one year, half had settled in Toronto.

– 1939: The St. Louis, a ship carrying 900 European Jews, was turned away by Canada and other countries. The ship eventually sailed back to Hamburg, Germany. It is believed many of the passengers died in Nazi concentration camps.

– 1914: 376 Indians, mostly Sikhs, aboard the ship Komagata Maru arrived in Vancouver harbour in May. The men, women and families intended to challenge racist immigration laws. After two months, they were sent back to sea by the Canadian navy. Only 20 people who could prove they were Canadian residents were allowed to stay. The Komagata Maru returned to India and was met by the British military; 20 passengers were killed in a confrontation. Official apologies were issued by the federal and provincial governments in 2008.

— Kirsten Smith, Postmedia News

— With files from Louise Dickson and Postmedia News
© Copyright (c) The Victoria Times Colonist

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