Why We Should Welcome Boatful of Tamil Refugees Into Canada

Harsha Walia a Vancouver-activist with No One Is Illegal and other groups, had the following opinion piece in the Vancouver Sun:

From the Komagata Maru carrying 376 Punjabi passengers and the SS St. Louis travelling with 900 Jewish asylum seekers, to the boats with 600 people from China’s Fujian province and the Ocean Lady that docked in B.C. last year with Tamil refugees – there is something about boatloads of migrants that triggers a national hysteria. Perhaps it is the realization that the expanse of ocean is not enough to enforce the divide between the West and the so-called Third World.

This past week has been no different with the arrival of the MV Sun Sea and approximately 500 Tamil migrants. With little substantiation, officials and media are regurgitating the refrain of “terrorists,” “illegals” and “queue jumpers.” Yet refugee advocates have repeatedly reminded us that there is no queue for refugees. It is inherent to the refugee experience that one does not wait in a line, fearing serious harm or death, to make the difficult decision to flee. Nor are they so-called illegals; they are asylum seekers. Canadian and international refugee law recognizes that many asylum seekers will be forced to travel irregularly, including by boat, to seek safety.

Relying on sound-bites about organized crime and terrorism is the best way to close public debate about government actions. Instead of relying on sensationalism, let us ask: On what basis are the Tamil migrants being declared terrorists? Is it even logical that well-financed and often state-backed terrorists or traffickers would suffer in a three-month long, arduous journey risking death? Even if we believe that women and children were forced onto this boat, how do we justify jailing them as a humane response?

What we do know is that United Nations Secretary-General Ban Kimoon has appointed a panel to investigate war crimes committed by the Sri Lankan government against Tamils. Human rights organizations have documented government and military atrocities including indiscriminate killings, arbitrary detentions and imprisonment, and mass displacement of Tamils. Canada has itself accepted more than 90 per cent of refugee claimants from Sri Lanka in the past two years.

Last year we succumbed to unfounded panic when the Ocean Lady landed with 76 Tamils aboard. All the men were eventually released when the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) was forced to admit they had no evidence of terrorist connections. Ottawa even tried to use Section 86 of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, a draconian section that allows for secret evidence in closed hearings, to make their case. Still, based on a lack of evidence, in January the CBSA announced that it would not contest the release of the last group of detainees.

Rohan Gunaratna, the anti-terrorism expert who is the government’s primary source, was discredited by immigration lawyers as well as adjudicator Otto Nuppanen during the Ocean Lady proceedings. As detailed in news articles, his unverified sources were questioned, as well as his credibility, given his close relationship with the Sri Lankan government. Following a recent investigation by the newspaper the Sunday Age in Australia, Gunaratna has retracted some of his alleged credentials.

So Canadian officials are either continuing to make uninformed statements despite the lack of evidence, or they are deliberately relying on the racist stereotyping of all Tamils as likely being associated with terrorism in order to fuel public fears. Their irresponsibility is facilitating a climate where anti-immigration advocates are gaining more traction in their demands for the boat to be sent back and for Canada to stop welcoming refugees.

Frankly, I think there is more reason to be mistrustful of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney and Public Safety Minister Vic Toews than of the migrants. Their regime has advanced an agenda of corporate bailouts and economic austerity; ballooning military, police and prison budgets; unmitigated resource extraction and environmental destruction; and an immigration policy that is moving toward the repressive Australia and Arizona models of accepting fewer refugees and jailing more asylum seekers and undocumented migrants. These politicians sell us strange paradoxes – military occupation as liberation, refugees as terrorists.

Instead, author McKenzie Wark reminds us, “Those who seek refuge, who are rarely accorded a voice, are nevertheless the bodies that confront the injustice of the world.

They give up their particular claim to sovereignty and cast themselves on the waters.

Only when the world is its own refuge will their limitless demand be met.”


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