Seven myths about the Tamil refugees

| August 20, 2010

Surviving a dangerous three-month ocean journey, 492 Tamil refugees -- including around 60 women and 55 children -- arrived in B.C. after fleeing war and persecution in Sri Lanka. When the ship the MV Sun Sea first neared Esquimault on Vancouver Island, the territories of the Songhees First Nation, it was immediately boarded by the Canadian armed forces, border services, and RCMP.

As of Wednesday, initial hearings had been completed for about 100 of the migrants. All were ordered to be re-incarcerated in the Fraser Correctional centres and Burnaby Youth detention centre, while officials are confirming their identities. It has been revealed that after seizing the belonging of the migrants into two large U-Hauls, Canadian Border Services Agency failed to keep records to tag the belongings and documents to each individual. This is causing an unnecessary and oppressive delay, and is even more objectionable since same thing happened to the Tamil refugees who arrived last fall on the ship Ocean Lady.

The detention hearings have been opened to media, though identities cannot be published, but are closed to representatives of community organizations. Priorities for hearings are being given to the 25 mothers and 54 children, who are being held together at the Burnaby Youth Detention Centre. It was announced Thursday that one boy was separated from his father, with whom he had been travelling, and held at this detention centre.

This week, No One Is Illegal has announced a national day of action to call for the immediate release of the detained Tamil asylum seekers, an end to racist and restrictive refugee policies, and to demand "Let the Boat Stay!" Actions are being planned in Vancouver, Victoria, Ottawa and elsewhere. Details are found here and an online petition can be found here.

In the meantime, here are some myths about the case:

Myth 1: They are illegals who are jumping the queue

There is no "queue" for refugee claimants. Refugees are forced from their homes in emergency situations due to human rights abuses committed during wars, military occupations, or persecution against a minority group. We cannot expect refugees to wait for Canada to select them from overseas. We must understand that they undertake long and dangerous journeys to protect their lives and the lives of their families. According to the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees, to which Canada is a party, there are no penalties on refugees who arrive without pre-authorization and irregularly.

Myth 2: We have to crack down on human smuggling

Public Safety Minister Vic Toews and Stephen Harper recently declared that Cabinet is "strengthening its laws" to clamp down on migrants and "make this country less welcoming for future shipments of human cargo."

Many refugees have no choice but to use irregular means, including resorting to smugglers, to flee persecution. As a report by the International Labour Organization discusses how many smuggling operations are "difficult to distinguish from legitimate work of travel agencies or labour recruitment agencies." It is not criminal organizations but anti-immigration policies that are the biggest facilitators of human smuggling. Given increasingly restrictive immigration and refugee policies, how are most people able to migrate if not with the assistance of smuggling operations? By today's standards, Harriet Tubman's Underground Railroad would have been considered a human smuggling operation!

It is also important to note that the rhetoric against human smuggling is not intended to ‘protect' victims of smuggling (who are routinely detained and deported), but to reinforce securitization of the border. In the Canadian government's new post-9/11 laws, it does not need to be proven that harm to persons or damage to property took place in order to secure a life sentence for smuggling; the simple act of moving 10 or more people across borders without state permission is sufficient. Such measures only lead to higher fees being charged and to more unsafe routes of migration.

Myth 3: They are terrorists

There is no evidence to substantiate this. Rohan Gunaratna, the government's primary source, has already been discredited by lawyers as well as an Immigration and Refugee Board adjudicator for being uncredible. Last October, when the 76 Tamil asylum-seekers came on Ocean Lady they were similarly labeled as terrorists and security threats. However by Jan. 2010, they were all released from detention when Canadian Border Services Agency admitted they had no evidence of a terrorist connection.

Furthermore, officials are just relying on stereotypes of Tamils as all being associated with the Tamil Tigers to create unnecessary racist hysteria and mistrust of asylum-seekers. National security laws in the post-911 climate have directly targeted and marginalized immigrants, refugees, and racialized people. These laws and policies are less about protecting society than creating a culture of fear. Many of these policies -- such as Security Certificates -- have been struck down in the courts after years of human rights and anti-racist campaigning. The rhetoric of the War On Terror serves as a convenient distraction from the reality that people's daily lives are increasingly unsafe and insecure due to global neoliberal economics and war-mongering that leads to mass displacement, poverty, and human rights atrocities.

Myth 4: The situation is getting better in Sri Lanka

According to a 2010 Amnesty International report, in the past 12 months the Sri Lankan government has continued to jail critics and clamped down on dissent. Some 80,000 Tamils remain in refugee camps, while 400,000 displaced Tamils survive in communities where homes and infrastructure were destroyed. The government continues to extend a state of emergency, restricting many basic human rights, and thousands of arbitrary detentions are justified under the guise of detainees being suspected Tamil Tigers. This past month, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon appointed a panel to investigate war crimes and genocidal acts committed by the Sri Lankan government against Tamils.

Myth 5: They are a burden on taxpayers.

The biggest resource expenditure has been the government's choice to spend thousands of dollars in an unnecessary security operation, including resources spent on incarcerating women and children. Only a tiny fraction has been spent on the health and well-being of the migrants, whose lives are worth more than dollars. Furthermore, scapegoating migrants for being a financial burden lets the government off the hook. All residents continue to receive inadequate access to necessary social services because of misplaced government priorities -- choosing to bail out banks and sink billions into the police and military -- not because of the lack of resources to provide a social safety net for all in need.

Myth 6: Canada has a generous refugee system; we cannot keep accepting people.

Despite border panics, only a small minority of asylum seekers make claims in the Western world. There are about 20 million refugees worldwide and most migrate into neighbouring countries of Africa, Middle East, and South Asia. Canada accepts fewer than 20,000 refugees per year, which is less than 0.1 per cent of the world's displaced population.

Furthermore, Canada's system is not generous. Deportations from Canada have skyrocketed 50 per cent over the last decade, with 13,000 deportations in the past year. With the Conservatives, the number of approved asylum claims has dropped by 56 per cent. Minister of Immigration Jason Kenney's recent refugee reforms create two tiers of refugees, establishing a hierarchy based on nationality. There are countless structural flaws in the system, designed to make it near impossible to claim asylum. Immigration and Refugee Board members are political appointees; certain avenues such as the Pre Removal Risk Assessment have acceptance rates of three to five per cent while others, such as the Humanitarian and Compassionate claim, do not have to be processed prior to deportation. In addition, the refugee system has been termed a "lottery system" because acceptance rates can vary from zero to 80 per cent depending on the judge. The Safe Third Country Agreement between the U.S. and Canada creates a "Fortress Canada" by disallowing up to 40 per cent of asylum seekers.

Myth 7: It is not our problem.

The Canadian government has recently been forced to apologize for racist and exclusionary historical measures including the Chinese Exclusion Act and SS Komagata Maru incident.

These apologies and the rhetoric of multiculturalism is hollow when current policies and practices perpetuate racism and exclusion. The recent backlash that repeats the tired-old refrain about "illegals" and "criminals" has meant that right-wing neo-nazis such as Paul Fromm and the Aryan Guard have resurfaced publicly and are being given a platform to spew their hate about sending the boat back. Is this really the side that we are on?

Immigration and refugee issues are not simply about Canadian benevolence or charity. We need to rethink what function and whose interests the state border actually serves. The current trends of global migration reveal the ways in which patters of Western domination and corporate globalization have enriched some countries by creating economic and political insecurity that forces people indigenous to their lands to migrate. The Canadian government continues to maintain economic and diplomatic ties with the government of Sri Lanka, instead of supporting those who have survived the brutality of that government, which makes us complicit in their displacement. Also, we must always remember that Canada is a settler country, built on the theft of Indigenous lands and the forced assimilation of Indigenous communities. On what basis is a colonial government denying colonized people their right to livelihood? Finally, we must challenge the idea that some are more worthy than others to a life of dignity; instead we should reaffirm the universal value that people have the freedom to move in order to seek safety and to flourish.

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