As the boatload of Tamil refugees approached this July, Amnesty International urged Canadians to “honour [our] international human rights obligations.” Given that Tamils “suspected, even if wrongly, of being LTTE [Tamil Tigers] supporters have been routinely imprisoned and tortured” by the Sri Lankan Government, Amnesty was concerned “to hear some public comments that seem to follow this lead by labeling Tamil asylum seekers as ‘terrorists.’”The boat landed in British Columbia August 12, whereupon Public Safety Minister Vic Toews voiced his concern about “suspected human smugglers and terrorists” among the refugees, who intended to “abuse” our “very generous…refugee legal system.” Likewise, Prime Minister Harper derided the refugees for seeking asylum “not through any normal arrival channel,” while simultaneously threatening to “strengthen” laws to keep them out.Harper is surely aware that the UN refugee convention states explicitly that “contracting states shall not impose penalties [on refugees] on account of their illegal entry” into the state party. He must also be aware that, as one distinguished Canadian refugee specialist points out, “there isn’t a legal way [for refugees] to come to Canada.”Nevertheless, these comments affect public opinion — which likely prompted Amnesty’s warning. 63 per cent of Canadians believed the Tamil ship “should have been turned back” to float the seas in squalor; 48 per cent would “deport [them] to their country of origin.” Illustratively, Harper’s misinformed statements about imaginary arrival channels are directly influent; 83 per cent of Canadians think “the migrants are jumping the immigration queue and should apply like any other foreigner” – as all other foreigners, surely, are fleeing the horror of ethnic war.
These are refugees, not migrants. After Colombo defeated the LTTE in 2009, it locked hundreds of thousands of displaced Tamils in :overcrowded and unsanitary, detention camps”, without “basic human rights or basic legal safeguards and, of course, without charges, for an indefinite period of time.” The internees faced constant “disappearances, abductions, arbitrary arrest, and sexual violence,” according to an Amnesty report. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon reported after visiting the camps that, although he had “travelled around the world and visited similar places,” the conditions of the camps were “by far the most appalling [he had] ever seen.”The Sri Lankan government has committed virtually all of the crimes for which the Tamil Tigers are rightly considered a terrorist organization, and many they have not. These include: political assassinations, hostage-taking, use of child soldiers, forced disappearances, executing international aid and relief workers, systematic rape, ethnic cleansing, settler colonialism, extermination, and genocide. In 2004, the government blocked tsunami relief aid to the country’s Tamil province. In a brazen act this past June, a government minister incited mobs to take UN staff hostage until Ban Ki Moon called off investigation of government war crimes.Canada’s hands are hardly clean of Colombo’s crimes. In 2009 Canadian trade with Sri Lanka totaled $456 million, not including $52.37 million in development assistance. Trade continued as the government was bombing trapped civilians and letting them fester in the camps. The fact that massive trade is not done with the LTTE may help explain why Ottawa classifies only one of these groups as a terrorist organization.Human smuggling is among the uglier aspects of the reality in Sri Lanka, and the Tigers, though fighting for a just cause, are as hideous in their methods as any terrorists. Concerns that transport fees could fund human-smugglers or the LTTE are justified and serious. That said, there is a simple way to prevent millions of dollars from being extorted from desperate refugees in exchange for passage to Canada: provide it for free. After the Vietnam War, Canada absorbed over 56,000 Vietnamese refugees and this had no impact on economic growth. Absorption of Tamil refugees would, furthermore, be supported by sponsorship from the highly-organized Canadian Tamil diaspora of around 200,000 (the Vietnamese diaspora in 1975 was only 1,500). Ottawa’s itinerary plan for 2010 plans for 265,000 immigrants, with only 9,000 spots for “Humanitarian and Compassionate/Public Policy” admittance. A significant number of Tamil refugees could be granted asylum simply by balancing this ratio slightly.The Harper government’s ideas for cracking down on human smuggling, however, are less than generous. How Canada treats the refugees that arrive on our shores will surely be an indicator of our humanity and respect for international law.