Tamil Asylum Seekers Had Help
Earlier this month a dilapidated vessel, the MV Sun Sea, was escorted to a British Columbia harbour by a flotilla of Canadian authorities. Soon after docking, there emerged from her hold a desperate collection of nearly 500 Tamil men, women and children, all at the ready to seek asylum in Canada. They had just spent a harrowing four months at sea, living literally cheek by jowl, with little more than a litre of water a week to drink. Their claims for asylum are based on a genuine fear of persecution if returned to their homeland, Sri Lanka, because as Tamils, they had come out on the losing side of a 26-year old bloody civil war that took the lives of 100,000 people.
The arrival of these wannabe-Canadians has touched a collective nerve in our nation’s populace. Some have suggested that we should have turned the boat back on the high seas, or that we should expel the Tamils without hearing their refugee claims. Fortunately, our government has not succumbed to these baser instincts.
So much has been written on the matter during the past few weeks that I hesitate to add my two cents. A good deal of the commentary up until now has been panicky in an Orson Welles’ “War of the Worlds” kind of way. However, there is a take on all of this that I have not seen expressed elsewhere and so I will address it here.
First though, some of the facts bear repeating.
– Our government, in its dealings with asylum seekers, has certain obligations under both international and domestic law. More specifically, in 1969 Canada signed the U.N. Refugee Convention and in so doing undertook not to return asylum seekers if they had a genuine fear of persecution. As well, the Supreme Court of Canada has afforded Charter Rights to asylum seekers and this guarantees that their claims be determined in a fair process.
– These Tamils are not attempting to enter Canada through some backdoor shenanigan. They are not jumping the immigration queue because there is no queue for asylum seekers, and they do not compete for visas with independent immigrants, such as skilled workers. The way our refugee determination system works is that anyone who makes their way to Canada, whether by boat, plane or otherwise, and demonstrates a genuine fear of persecution, is in. It makes no difference how many claimants come before or after. Each is determined on its own merits. In the past few years, Canada has considered approximately 30,000 refugee claims per year.
– In recent years, upwards of 83% of asylum requests made by Tamils inside of Canada have been accepted as genuine. The record also shows that far more refugee claims have recently been made by people arriving from Hungary by plane than by Tamils by boat, and of the Hungarian group, very few claimants are found to be genuine. Judging from the lack of coverage and commentary of this phenomenon, one has to assume that Canadians aren’t as alarmed by an influx of Eastern Europeans.
Now, here is the one question about this whole affair that has been bugging me from the outset and has not yet been addressed by the media—where in the world did the boat’s passengers come up with the reported $30,000 to $50,000 per head as the cost of the voyage? Surely, this princely sum far surpasses each passenger’s ability to pay. The trip’s organizers may be a lot of things but “good Samaritans” they are not. I doubt very much that an I.O.U. got anyone a space on board the ship. Then it occurred to me that their benefactors were most likely close family members already in Canada.
The journey of these Tamil asylum seekers brings to mind a very sad chapter in my own family’s history. My paternal grandfather, may he rest in peace, arrived in Canada from Eastern Europe in the early 1900’s. He worked hard and in the ensuing years managed to find a way to bring over his remaining siblings, except for his younger sister. In the 1930’s my grandfather saw the discomforting signs of what lay ahead for European Jews. He redoubled his efforts to get his kid sister out of harm’s way. Pleas were made to the Canadian government of the day, but they fell on deaf ears. Some of the commentary back then described Jewish refugee-seekers as frauds and economic opportunists. In the end, my grandfather failed in his mission and his sister became another Nazi victim.
I can assure readers that if there was a way for my grandfather to have paid the owners of a boat to provide safe passage to Canada for his sister, he would have done so in a heartbeat no matter how nefarious the profiteers may have been. Can you blame him? Can you now blame the Canadian relatives of the passengers on board the MV Sun Sea?