Opinion and Editorial

Boatpeople from Sri Lanka Set Compass for Canada

George Abraham
Filed on November 12, 2009

Choosing between Australia and Canada must have seemed a no-brainer for the hundreds who set sail from squalid camps in the north of Sri Lanka a few weeks ago. Australia presented a shorter voyage, but events over the last week have shown that those who set their compass on Canada made a far better call.

Recently, one of the 76 Tamils who landed in British Columbia on Canada’s western shore actually walked away with his brother, a naturalised Canadian, barely four days after setting foot on Canadian soil. The rest are still at a detention centre, but unless the Canadian border and immigration authorities can demonstrate that any of them is a known Tamil Tiger, it’s only a matter of time before all of them are accepted as refugees in Canada.

Contrast that with what’s happening Down Under. The government of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has come up with an “Indonesia solution” to make sure that the Tamils headed to Australia are kept as far away from its shoreline as possible. They were not even allowed to get as far as Christmas Island, which has served as a convenient way station for the Rudd government to deal with the recent influx of refugees from Sri Lanka and Afghanistan at arm’s length rather than on the Aussie mainland.

The Aussie government has reached out to both Indonesia and Malaysia to stanch the arrival of refugees to its shores even as its detention facility on Christmas Island is overflowing. The UN has been called in process individual asylum applications from the latest boatload. In comparison, the 76 Tamils who landed in British Columbia have become a Canadian problem, with the expectation of an all-Canadian solution. While the two sibling nations may differ in their approach to the migrating Tamils, what is undeniable is that the vast majority of these desperate seafarers would qualify as refugees deserving of Ottawa’s and Canberra’s sovereign protections. In recent years, both governments have been generous in applying this definition, invariably granting all asylum requests made by Sri Lankan Tamils.

The civil war that ravaged the island nation over the last quarter-century has resulted in a large Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora, nowhere larger than in Toronto. Much to its chagrin, this large immigrant community has learned that traditional Canadian sufferance has its limits and that the population at large draws a clear line between Tiger “terrorists” and Tamil civilians who have fled the fighting in their homeland.

Immigration Minister Jason Kenney has been quoted as saying, “Let me be clear, our government intends to vigorously enforce Canada’s laws to put the safety and security of Canadians first when it comes to issues like this.” The clear implication is that the government suspects the 76 asylum seekers to include Tigers, who will not be welcome in Canada. Although this is not the first time that boatpeople have reached Canadian shores, it is a rare occurrence. Bounded by the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, Canadians—like Americans—feel quite secure in the knowledge that refugee boats are unlikely to attempt such a treacherous crossing. However, what this does not factor in is how desperate refugees can be and also the growing business that has become human smuggling. The ocean-going Tamil asylum seekers had apparently paid $15,000 to get on these creaky vessels.

These large payments, most probably paid for by relatives in the West, and the fact that some of those arriving in Canada had already lined up lawyers to file their refugee applications suggests a well-oiled trafficking route. Even this, though, will be used to press their cases before the Immigration and Refugee Board. They will be portrayed as a sign of desperation, close family ties and further evidence of the chain-link immigration that has brought entire clans from the Pearl of the Indian Ocean to this Arctic nation.

With close to a quarter-million Tamils in limbo in Sri Lanka and with the Colombo government showing little sign of easing its lockdown, the pressure on countries like Canada is only bound to grow. Soon after the Colombo army declared victory in its protracted war with the Tigers, Canada announced priority processing for all relatives and orphaned family members who have already filed for immigration. Obviously, that has not been enough. Irrespective of the odds facing the latest refugee seekers, the simultaneous despatch of boats carrying Tamils to two immigrant-receiving nations and the very different outcomes is bound to spark fresh debate among Aussies and Canucks about their asylum policies. The modus operandi suggests a new level of sophistication, and with more boats reportedly en route, Australia’s approach of offshoring its obligations may prove more popular at home than Canada’s hospitable reception.

George Abraham is an Ottawa-based commentator. He can be reached at diplomat01@rogers.com

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