International Migrants Day: None of us is free until all of us are free

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Tamil children incarcerated at the detention centre in Burnaby, B.C., wave at the noisy protest. Photo: Isaac Oommen, Vancouver Media Co-op

Nenje nenje, nee engai, naanum angai 

(Soul, wherever you are, I am there too.)

- Lyrics from one of the Tamil songs played every week in front of the Burnaby detention centre.

For the last three months, No One Is Illegal Vancouver has organized weekly demonstrations outside the Burnaby Youth Detention Centre where approximately 75 mothers and children who arrived aboard the MV Sun Sea last summer are still being detained. They were amongst the 492 Tamil refugees who made the three-month journey from Sri Lanka to B.C., only upon their arrival to be forced into three detention centres across the Lower Mainland amidst a national hysteria about "illegals" and "criminals."

A wide range of people attend the demonstrations in support-- some every week without fail -- including Tamil community members, labour activists, Indigenous elders, families, prison abolitionists, and immigrants rights advocates. Locked out of the brown-brick facility operated by Ministry of Child and Family Development, supporters bang pots and blow air horns to the beats of blaring Tamil music. A large Tamil banner reading "We welcome you, We support you" is held towards the two detention units approximately 200 feet away, where children aged three to 12 can be seen waving and smiling through prison bars. Since September, approximately 60 detainees in total have been released.

The consistent presence outside the prison has been critical in breaking the isolation the detainees are intended to experience. The disciplinary regimes of prisons encourage obedience by forcing inmates to internalize the logic of punishment and their own undesirability. Members of No One Is Illegal have had sporadic direct and indirect contact with detainees, including access to one of the detention centres, phone conversations with detainees, as well as messages via lawyers and social workers.

The lack of public outcry about this ongoing mass detention has facilitated the introduction of Bill C-49. Under the banner of combating "human smuggling", the Conservative government's bill subjects asylum seekers, including children, suspected of using a smuggler, to mandatory detention for at least the first year after their arrival. The proposed bill also denies these asylum seekers the right to appeal a negative refugee decision and they will be prohibited from obtaining permanent residency and from sponsoring family members for a five-year probationary period.

Much like the hypocritical ideology of "liberating" women in Afghanistan through a military occupation, anti-smuggling provisions are justified through the rhetoric of "protecting" women. Yet criminalizing smuggling only increases the stakes in irregular, often dangerous, migration.

As written by Professor James C. Hathaway, "Human smugglers play a critical role in assisting refugees to reach safety. Canada and other developed countries created the market on which smugglers depend by erecting (literal and virtual) migration walls around their territories." Under the provisions of Bill C-49, human smuggling special envoy Ward Elcock (former CSIS chair and security co-ordinator for the Olympics and G20) would declare Harriet Tubman's Underground Railroad a criminal smuggling operation.

Bill C-49 is modeled after Australia's internationally condemned policies of mandatory detention. Last month, while Immigration Minister Jason Kenney was in Australia seeking advice, the Australia High Court unanimously struck down provisions on off-shore detention, denial of refugee appeals, and differential treatment of refugees arriving on boats. At the same time, in protest of their ongoing incarceration, over 160 migrants went on hunger strike and 10 sewed their lips shut. On the notorious Christmas Island, where detainees can be held for years, there have been at least two suicides this year, and this past week over 30 migrants died in a fatal boat crash just off its coast.

In Canada, many advocates mistakenly point to a "broken immigration system" when in fact Canada is perfecting a system of containment and commodification of migrants. Bill C-49 is the latest in a series of drastic changes in immigration policy, including Bill C-50 and Bill C-11. Bill C-50 gives the immigration minister immense powers to arbitrarily reject visas and to issue quotas and restrictions on visa classes. Bill C-11, passed with minimal opposition, has created two tiers of refugees, establishing a racist hierarchy based on nationality. As avenues for permanent residency are being slashed and deportations are increasing, temporary worker programs have proliferated. Refusing to ratify the UN Migrant Workers' Convention, Canada continues to rely on migrant workers as a necessary source of exploitable labour, while denying them the right to enfranchisement and a stake in political and social discourses.

The "tough-on-illegals" spin is linked to the "tough-on-crime" approach. While regurgitating sound bites about financial austerity and cutbacks, the Conservatives have increased the prison budget by 50 per cent, paralleled only by the ballooning military budget. Despite falling crime rates, over $400 million is set for prison expansion with at least 20 new prisons. It is only logical, then, that the government will fill these prisons through creating more prisoners. Bill C-49, along with other recent legislation, further criminalizes communities -- Indigenous, substance-using, sex workers, homeless, street-involved youth, and migrants of colour -- who are already over-surveillanced and over-incarcerated. At least one-quarter of Canada's prison population is made up of migrants being held for deportation.

Over the past four years in the U.S., undocumented migrants comprise one of the fastest growing prison populations with an 80 per cent increase in detention spaces. According to an NPR investigation, Arizona's controversial SB 1070 was drafted during a meeting between state legislators and the largest private prison corporation Corrections Corporation of America which houses over 75,000 migrant detainees. Just this week in the U.S., thousands of Georgian prisoners are on strike in the largest prison strike in U.S. history demanding fair wages, basic services such as health care and food, and an end to prison slavery. While private prisons have largely been rejected in Canada, public-private partnerships in prison management will be a likely feature of prison expansion.

In 2005, No One Is Illegal Vancouver made submissions to the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, concluding that: "We aim for a world where freedom of movement and human mobility is guaranteed and the social control of migrants through the detention and deportation regime is abolished."

While the challenges to abolishing prisons and detention centres are numerous, the rejection of the industrial complexes and social landscapes of imprisonment provide an opportunity to express our human interconnectedness and our unfulfilled desires of our lives as our own.

Harsha Walia is an anti-racist and anti-colonial migrant justice organizer with No One Is Illegal Vancouver, Coast Salish Territories.

Join No One Is Illegal on December 18, International Migrants Day, for a "No Celebration in Detention" demonstration outside the Burnaby Youth Detention Centre. Details, as well as future events, are available through their website. Sign up for their low traffic email list to receive updates

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