Canada's treatment of the Tamil refugees is a defining moment

The MV Sun Sea (right) and the impromptu refugee processing centre set up to received 490 Tamils. As seen from across the harbour on the shore of the Esquimalt First Nation after the ship’s arrival on Aug. 13, 2010. Photo: Wongo888/Flickr

Whatever else happens, the MV Sun Sea shall be remembered as having posed a security, immigration and moral dilemma for Canada, depending on who you speak to.

A Thai registered cargo ship, the MV Sun Sea had approximately 500 potential claimants for refugee status, all of whom are of Tamil origin. It originated in Sri Lanka and was denied permission to dock by Thailand and Australia. 

The ship arrived in Canadian waters Friday and was intercepted by armed Canadian military and the RCMP. After health and security officials boarded the ship in Victoria, B.C., the passengers were given medical check-ups; most have been moved to detention centres in the Vancouver area while their refugee claims are being processed. Hearings are due to begin today.

Since their arrival, the issues that have been debated are the following:

1) It was initially claimed that many passengers may be suffering from tuberculosis and so may pose a health threat to the Canadian population. On Sunday, it was announced that one man in his 30s died during the three-month journey and was "buried at sea." Canadian authorities eventually announced that conditions, while cramped, were orderly and no serious illnesses had take hold in the refugee group.

2) Canadian government has stated it is concerned to make a distinction between "terrorists," human traffickers and real refugees.

3) According to Sri Lankan government's official communication with the Canadian government -- the ship is part of the "arsenal" of Tamil Tigers organization -- a militant group that fought a full-scale war with Sri Lankan army and government for over 25 years to create an independent Tamil state within the Sri Lankan island, but was defeated in 2009. According to Sri Lankan government representatives in Canada, the Tigers may have been defeated in Sri Lanka but their international infrastructure remains in tact and that this ship is part of that so-called Tamil Tiger "fleet." Thus, the Sri Lankan government's warning to Canada is that the ship is a rebel ploy carrying erstwhile but ousted rebels and not "genuine" refugees.

What hasn't been mentioned much in this country is the living conditions for the Tamils following the end of the bitter civil war in 2009. The Sri Lankan government was condemned by the Obama administration in the U.S. earlier this month for an inquiry into the war that was seen by the Americans as failing to "produce any discernable results." 

4) The Canadian Tamil Congress -- a Canadian non-profit organization that has offered counseling, legal and other services to the arriving passengers -- is at pains to point out that ever since the war in Sri Lanka ended, Tamils are being kept in inhuman conditions in "camps" and thus those fleeing the country and seeking refuge are genuine humanitarian cases.

Tamil incarceration in camps in Sri Lanka, with the government of Sri Lanka supposedly weeding out rebels and terrorists from civilians caught up in the melee, has been well established by international agencies like Human Rights Watch, the United Nations and Canadian non-partisan groups like Canadians Concerned About Sri Lanka (CCSL). The U.N. has said that at least 7,000 Tamil civilians were killed in the final stages of conflict.

5) More ships are en route to Canada carrying a similar "cargo," human beings fleeing inhumane conditions. Thus, some have claimed that this is a test case for Canadian resolve -- to determine whether we are pushovers (unlike Australia), getting duped by hardened criminals to believe they are worthy of our sympathy and protection. Also, that if we process these claimants we are allowing people to "jump the queue" for refugee determination when others have to suffer long waits, just because the former have arrived on our shores so dramatically and unexpectedly. Both are implied by some commentators, including the Federal Public Safety Minister Vic Toews and a spokesperson for Minister of Citizenship and Immigration Jason Kenny.

Perhaps what ought to be borne in mind are several factors:

Yes, this is a test, but it is one FOR US, to show to the rest of the world how Canada IS a humanitarian country -- unlike anyone else in the Western world -- that is willing to follow and enforce its own best standards of justice -- the doctrine of assumption of innocence. Canada does not abandon its own principles because that is the fashion of the day. It does not label a whole group of people suspect because they are involved in a struggle we do not understand and that we do not wish to get involved in.

We take people and their suffering as just that, and offer help whenever we can. If the passengers carry tuberculosis, we take appropriate precautions and administer appropriate and timely succor so that they can become healthy, irrespective of whether or not they ever become Canadian.

If the passengers, that include many children, are suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome, we work with Canadian Tamil organizations and provide them the best counseling support that Canada has to offer, irrespective of whether they ever get to live in Canada.

If the passengers are seeking refugee status and we need to determine whether they are human traffickers or genuine refugees, we carry out appropriate investigation as we would do in any other matter that violates our laws -- in this case law pertaining to human trafficking -- and expedite the acceptance of those who are not traffickers.

However, if the issue comes down to who is a "terrorist" and who is not -- Canada absolutely must follow its own dictates and not those of the Sri Lankan government. In this dubious world established by "Bushisms," like "you are either with us or against us," we cannot declare the world to be divided between us and them because determining either is treacherous and highly subjective.

Canada is host to the largest Tamil diaspora in the world, and one that has enriched our country immeasurably. The great majority of those Tamils are in Canada because of being dislocated by the war in Sri Lanka. No matter what their beliefs may be regarding who is right and who is wrong in Sri Lanka, and thus who they consider to be the "terrorist," they live their lives here as exemplary Canadians.

Similarly, those passengers must be seen as Tamil refugees, and not be accused of terrorism unless they we are shown to have committed a crime against the state of Canada or be subject to some international investigation based on a transgression deemed to be criminal in nature by some legitimate international agency to which Canada is a signatory. One person's terrorist is another person's freedom fighter! As for destruction of property and lives -- well, unless it is Canadian property and life that is shown to be destroyed by one of the passengers or we can claim some special extradition agreement with the government of Sri Lanka, we must process them as refugees.

Canada has a unique history and position in the world. As we apologize and try to put the Komagata Maru behind us, another ship carrying another load of passengers looking for safety, security and a better life has arrived.

We are facing a situation yet again that may end up defining us into the future. Our best strategy is to follow our humanitarian principles and due process -- what is good enough for us will no doubt be good enough for the passengers of MV Sun Sea.

Uzma Shakir is a community-based researcher, advocate, activist. She is the past executive director of Council of Agencies Serving South Asians (CASSA) and the South Asian Legal Clinic of Ontario (SALCO). She has worked as a teacher, journalist and researcher. Her blog for rabble.ca can be read here.

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