It has been troubling for me to watch the news coverage and commentary around the arrival of a boatload of potential Tamil refugees in Canada this week, and it has left me wondering if I lived in the Canada I thought I lived in after all. Certainly, it seems that a re-examination of what has typically been seen as our values and attitudes is in order.
My concern isn’t necessarily about policy but more about tone, since the government doesn't seem to be doing anything substantive (yet) to back-up their ranting. I’m uneasy about boats arriving on our shores, I believe human smuggling is a heinous crime, and I don’t want terrorists released in our midst. But I also believe we should welcome legitimate refugees, no matter how they get here.
There are short-term and long-term issues here. Short-term, I believe we should process these people through the refugee process; those who meet the criteria (legitimate fear for their safety, persecution, etc.) can stay; those who do not should go. That is happening. The crew should be prosecuted for human smuggling, the ship seized, an investigation to find their sponsors launched, and those people pursued through international legal channels.
Longer-term, I think there needs to be policy changes, both domestic and international.
Complaints that many refugee claimants abuse the system by staying after being ruled ineligible, and that claims take too long to process, are legitimate. This isn’t an issue unique to these Tamils however; it’s a deeper issue with our immigration and refugee system that should be addressed by the government as part of its wider systemic reforms. And if we are being targeted by abusers for the laxness of our system, the answer is simple: fix the system so we're less attractive to those that would abuse it while still welcoming legitimate claimants.
Internationally, we need concrete efforts to deter and prosecute human smuggling. But we also need to look at other initiatives, and examine the root causes of such incidents. For example, working with the UN to improve the situation on the ground in places like Sri Lanka, and setting-up regional refugee processing centres overseas so that claims can be processed and legitimate refugees can come to Canada and other countries legally, without resorting to paying human smugglers for illegal passage.
There are very real issues that can be debated here, from policy reforms to more philosophical questions around what our refugee policy should be. Unfortunately, we don’t seem to be having that debate. Instead, it seems as though the worst tactics of the U.S. Mexican immigration debate are coming to Canada.
We see Vic Toews and Stephen Harper stoking security fears and using the story to try to change the channel from issues that have been hurting them. We see Sun Media going all Rambo, seemingly implying we should sink the next boat that approaches our shores, or shoot them all or something, and warning you they’re stealing our tax dollars and our health care services. And in Toronto, we see mayoral candidate Rob Ford seemingly promising to wall-off Toronto to any further immigration (well, some immigration, to be sure). And he could actually win. And such attitudes and opinions aren’t exactly isolated.
It seems astounding though to be seeing this in a nation of immigrants. Wasn’t it not long ago that this government was apologizing for the Komagata Maru incident, when in 1914 a ship of Indian immigrants was prevented from docking in Canada over laws designed to prevent Asian emigration? Have we forgotten that our laws that prevent us from blocking ships of immigrants from landing were enacted following the shame of the Holocaust and World War Two, when Canada and many other countries barred our doors to Jewish refugees trying to flee the spread of Nazism?
I think we should reform our immigration system to increase capacity, process claims more quickly and ensure denied claimants are sent home quickly. And we should crack down on human smugglers, not human victims.
But let’s not lose sight of our history, our values, and that everyone here is from somewhere else.