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Canada's treatment of Tamil refugees is a "defining moment," and we're failing

kevin philipupillai

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - JUNE 26: Protesters march during a rally organised by the Refugee Action Coalition at the Sydney Town Hall on June 26, 2010 in Sydney, Australia. Protesters demanded the government shut down the controversial Curtin detention centre that was recently re-opened to house Afghan and Sri Lankan refugees. The Federal Government in April suspended the processing of claims by asylum seekers from Afghanistan and Sri Lanka citing 'evolving circumstances' in both countries. (Photo by Brendon Thorne/Getty Images)

Watch out! The terrorists are coming! They’re human smugglers too, all of them. They’re smuggling themselves. And there are many more boats on the horizon, watching and waiting to take advantage of our natural generosity. Xenophobic? Not us. We value immigration. In fact, there are thousands of good immigrants out there waiting patiently to get in, and these bad refugees are trying to jump the line!

If pollster Angus Reid’s projections are accurate, something about this infuriating line of reasoning appeals to half the country. Polling data released on August 20th and confirmed on September 14th suggests that half of Canadians want the 490 passengers and crew from the MV Sun Sea to be deported—even if their refugee claims are legitimate and they have no discernible links with any terrorist organization.

Uzma Shakir, past executive director of the Council of Agencies Serving South Asians (CASSA), warned early on that Canada’s treatment of the people on board the MV Sun Sea would be a defining moment for the country. Damn.

Allegations of “queue-jumping” ignore the difference between asylum seekers and other immigrants. Sharry Aiken, Associate Dean in the Faculty of Law at Queen’s University, explained last week on The Agenda that “Canada has an in-land refugee determination system that is premised on the assumption that it is entirely legitimate for people to self-select and arrive on our shores and claim asylum. That’s what our system is set up to do. We recognize that the refugee resettlement program, which resettles refugees from overseas, doesn’t work for everybody.”

Public Safety Minister (and lead narrator) Vic Toews has acknowledged that this is a case of human smuggling and not human trafficking, but the conflation of the two terms has hardened hearts against the smugglers and the refugees. Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees, emphasizes the difference between the exploited and their exploiters.

The CCR has released a statement saying that while it in no way condones the activities of smugglers, “many refugees have no choice but to use irregular means to flee persecution and international law prohibits them being penalized for illegal entry.  Many Canadians would not be alive today if they or their parents had not paid smugglers to help them escape persecution.” Professor Aiken points to security measures adopted internationally after 9/11 which closed the “front door” and forced desperate refugees to look to the black market.

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