Rocking the Boat: A Brief History of Anti-Migrant Hysteria in Canada

They’re at it again.

In November, 76 Tamil refugees escaped Sri Lanka on a rusty freighter. They arrived in Victoria, where they were met by RCMP and Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) officials, who promptly jailed them for three months on allegations of terrorism. It would be fully half a year before the CBSA would admit that it had never had any evidence.

By then, however, it was too late: anti-Tamil and anti-refugee hysteria had spread like wildfire. Now, mere weeks after that most tepid of mea culpas from the CBSA, the hysteria greeting the Tamil MV Sun Sea passengers is worse. As with the Ocean Lady, these migrants will be detained in Maple Ridge jails before their refugee claims are considered. The Conservatives have begun to create new rules to treat refugees who arrive by boat differently from others. Meanwhile, Paul Fromm, the infamous neo-Nazi, has been receiving uncritical coverage in mainstream media with his demands that the migrants be sent back.

As the paranoia grows ever more heightened, it becomes increasingly important that we resist it. The universal rights of safety and mobility must be upheld, not only for the Sun Sea migrants, but for all people fleeing violence.

I.      Sri Lanka: War, Then “Peace”

In May 2009, the Sri Lankan government closed 26 years of intermittent civil war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) with the killing of tens of thousands of Tamil civilians. The International Crisis Group (ICG), an advising NGO to the UN, notes the Sri Lankan government was able to achieve a massacre of this magnitude by, among other things, the targeted shelling of non-combatants:

The government and security forces encouraged hundreds of thousands of civilians to move into ever smaller government-declared No Fire Zones and then subjected them to repeated and increasingly intense artillery and mortar barrages and other fire.

The government followed its declaration of victory by forcing over a quarter of a million Tamil civilians into detention camps. Some 80,000 Tamils are still behind barbed wire. Numerous NGOs have condemned the desperate living conditions in the camps, citing severe overcrowding, erratic medical care, and irregular access to water. About a third of children under the age of five in the camps are moderately or severely malnourished.

Meanwhile, roughly 12,000 detainees have been transferred, on suspicion of involvement with the LTTE, to separate prisons operated by Sri Lankan security forces and affiliated paramilitary groups. Many of these groups have been implicated in human rights violations. Amnesty International contends that the “incommunicado detention of suspects in irregular places of detention […] has been a persistent practice in Sri Lanka associated with torture, killings and enforced disappearances.”

II.    Escape

Small wonder then that people are fleeing Sri Lanka. Yet the escapes they attempt are only marginally less dangerous than the situations they leave behind. One of the Ocean Lady migrants described his 45-day long journey thus:

All of the faces on the ship were new, no one knew each other. What I saw were people who feared for their lives. […] At the beginning of the trip, it was extremely hot on the ship. We would go for fresh air on the deck, but most passengers stayed in the bottom of the ship. We must have been way deep under the water. At the end of the trip and closer to Canada, the cold was extremely difficult to handle. […] This is a journey that plays with death: We faced seven or eight treacherous storms, and I remember one — on maybe Oct. 10 or Oct. 11 — that still haunts me. I thought death was inevitable.

His account of their arrival in Canada provides some humanising context to the photograph of waving men that became associated with the story:

Two days before we arrived, we saw an airplane that had the word ‘Canada’ on it in green letters. People from the bottom of the ship raced to the top and started waving their hands. Everyone was hopeful, we were so happy just to communicate with someone.

III.   The Ocean Lady

Soon after that picture was taken all 72 refugees were taken to a Maple Ridge jail. Meanwhile, the Canadian government went into overdrive. Alykhan Velshi, Kenney’s spokesperson, went on record with rhetoric flamboyant enough to rival most Internet message boards, such as when he proclaimed, “We won’t allow Canada to become a place of refuge for terrorists, thugs, snakeheads and other violent foreign criminals.” (In his analyses of the politics of global migration, the imminent danger of “snakeheads” is always a recurring fear for Velshi.)

They remained in jail while the government argued that they were terrorists and thus ineligible to make refugee claims. The RCMP contacted the Sri Lankan government to identify the detainees, endangering their families in Sri Lanka, despite objections from lawyers and civil liberties advocates.

Rohan Gunaratna, head of a think tank in Singapore, was the source of most of the government’s “evidence.” He was soon discredited. Immigration and Refugee Board adjudicator Otto Nupponen charged that besides Gunaratna’s lack of sources, there was an “ongoing close relationship between Dr. Gunaratna and the government of Sri Lanka.”

By January, every one of the migrants had been released, but it would be another six months before the CBSA would finally admit that it had had no proof.

IV.   The MV Sun Sea

It has been scarcely a month since that admission. On August 13, after nearly three months at sea, the Sun Sea arrived in Victoria. Roughly 490 people were on board, including women and children. The CBSA has already removed some of the children from their parents and placed them in BC foster care. After “processing” is complete, the refugees will be moved to two Maple Ridge jails.

This mass imprisonment occurs when only last month the Conservatives revealed that, despite falling crime rates, it intends to spend $9.5 billion on expanding prisons. In addition, provincial officials have stated that BC will receive “full compensation” from Ottawa for “housing” the migrants. This speaks to the interlocking relationship of Canada’s immigration and prison systems. Still, few care to admit that if refugees are a financial burden on the system, it is because Canada is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars jailing them.

V.    Speculation as News

The criminalisation of refugees, however, is a process that extends well beyond the walls of Canadian jails, buttressed as it is by shoddy journalism. First, the number 500 is being used to whip up fears of “tides” of refugees pouring into Canada. In fact, only a small minority of the 20 million refugees worldwide make claims in the West. Canada accepts less than 0.1% of this population. On top of this, the Sun Sea migrants constitute only 0.1% of the refugees who even apply to Canada.

Second, every article about the Sun Sea opens by reprinting the allegations against the Ocean Lady migrants. Most of these articles do not mention that all the allegations were proven false. The kinder articles limit themselves to ambiguous statements like “All have since been released [and] few, if any, face a realistic prospect of deportation.” Many are much more disingenuous. The National Post authoritatively reported:

According to a Canada Border Services Agency report – marked secret and obtained by the Vancouver Sun through the Access to Information Act – at least 25 of the 76 migrants were members of the Tamil Tigers.

The CBSA created this report in January, the Vancouver Sun published it in June, and the CBSA publicly recanted it in July.

One Globe and Mail editorial pondered thusly:

All 76 Sri Lankan Tamils from the first migrant smuggling ship, Ocean Lady, which arrived in B.C. last October, were released after 60 days in detention, and all now await refugee hearings. Not one was declared ineligible to make a claim, despite expert testimony from Ronan Gunaratna.

Tragically, they were unable to spell said expert’s name (Rohan) correctly.

VI.   Tamil, Tiger, Terrorist.

A National Post article printed the following:

Gunaratna […] said there were Tamil Tiger leaders among the group that arrived on the Ocean Lady and even more onboard the MV Sun Sea. “The ship carries not just refugees, but is staffed by a Tamil Tiger crew,” said Mr. Gunaratna, who has studied the Tamil Tigers and their 25-year war, since 1984. The Tamils lost their fight for an independent homeland in Sri Lanka’s north in May 2009.

How can a sentence about the LTTE segue so blithely into a gross generalisation about all Tamil people? How can Tamil people have “lost their fight” when not all Tamil people are separatists?

Since the end of the war, Sri Lanka’s government has resisted all calls for impartial investigations into its alleged and ongoing war crimes. Accordingly, the ICG’s recommendations included this specific note for Canada:

11. Do not extradite LTTE suspects to Sri Lanka unless guarantees of humane treatment and fair trials are in place. Instead prosecute in domestic courts where possible and appropriate.

In the Sri Lankan state’s imagination, all Tamils are LTTE suspects. It used this formulation to justify the blanket killings and detentions. Furthermore, this is the fiction Sri Lanka continues to sell to the rest of the world. Approximately 1,000 Tamil asylum seekers, for instance, have fled to Australia. Experts there have responded to claims that half of them are Tiger supporters by pointing out that most Tamils would necessarily have had contact with the LTTE, since the group had ruled a large swath of northern Sri Lanka.

Yet the vilification of the Sun Sea migrants, both for being Tamil and being refugees, is so unchecked in Canada, that the day after their arrival, Fromm was able to arrange a rally of “concerned citizens of Victoria” at CFB Esquimalt, where the migrants are being held. Fromm, who had already arranged a rally with the White National Aryan Guard outside Kenney’s Alberta office, sent out a press release entitled, “Stop the Tamil Tiger Smuggling Ship.” Its premise is that “the Sun Sea is just the beginning of an all-out invasion.” To that end, it concludes with “Send the illegals back!!!!!”

CTV is now serving as Fromm’s soap box. In none of its coverage – neither its online video interview with him nor on Victoria’s main radio station, C-FAX 1070 – have his connections with the KKK been disclosed, thereby accelerating the normalisation of his racism.

Little wonder, then, that besides all this, there is no acknowledgement of the hypocrisy of Canada, a settler country built on the theft of Indigenous lands and the forced assimilation of Indigenous communities, denying brutalised people their right to safety.

Instead, the collective punishment of the Sun Sea migrants is being presented as necessary “to reverse this country’s growing international reputation as an easy mark,”  thus making synonyms of “refugee” and “criminal.” One article quoted Gunaranta saying, “Canada’s response to the Ocean Lady determined the MV Sun Sea’s voyage because it was a weak response.”

“Weak” is an odd word to describe the release of innocent civilians from jail.

VII. “Boat People”: “None is too many.”

Keith Martin, Liberal MP for Esquimalt-Juan de Fuca, has argued that “the feds are using the migrants as a straw man to make themselves look strong.” In his words, “[Public Safety Minister Vic] Toews loves to talk about this boat being filled with terrorists and human traffickers. But if you’re a trafficker, you don’t get on a boat and spend three months risking your life on a filthy, crowded boat.”

However, despite opposition, the Conservatives have begun working on new tools that would treat refugees who arrive by boat differently from other claimants. Yet according to the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees, to which Canada is a signatory, refugees cannot be penalised for arriving without pre-authorization or irregularly. Moreover, the number of Sea Sun migrants is about the same as the number of asylum seekers who arrive in Canada by plane in a week.Yet refugees who arrive by sea have always been stigmatised more than those who arrive on shiny airplanes.

In 1914, the Komagata Maru arrived with 376 Indian passengers, most of them Sikh. “Hindu invaders now in Vancouver harbor,” read a newspaper headline. They were forbidden to disembark for two months, until the ship was finally forced to leave. British soldiers killed 26 of the passengers upon their return to India.

In 1939, the St. Louis, carrying 900 Jewish passengers, sought entry into Canada, but the Immigration Director said no country could “open its doors wide enough to take in the hundreds of thousands of Jewish people who want to leave Europe: The line must be drawn somewhere.” The ship returned to Europe. Most of its passengers were killed in concentration camps.

In 2008, the federal and provincial governments were forced to issue apologies for the Komagata Maru. Now, two years later, if those words are to mean anything, we cannot afford to repeat history: let them stay.

For a concise breakdown of the 6 most popular myths about refugees see Myths and Realities about 490 Tamil Refugees on MV Sun Sea.

Cross posted on The Media Coop.

About the Author

Fathima Cader
Fathima Cader is in her first year of law at the University of British Colombia. She received a BSc in Life Sciences and a BAH in English from Queen's University and an MA in English from the University of Toronto. Her legal and academic interests include social justice law, cultural studies, and digital media studies. She freelances as a web and graphic designer.

4 Comments on "Rocking the Boat: A Brief History of Anti-Migrant Hysteria in Canada"

  1. JamesHalifax | August 19, 2010 at 9:02 am |

    One may wonder why the majority of Tamils reaching our shores are young men of fighting age, with a few women and kids thrown in for appearances.

    I wonder how many lawyers will get rich with this shipload?

    All costs associated with these Tamils, should be reimbursed by the Tamil community in Toronto. There is NO WAY we should have to pay for this idiocy yet again.

    One should not flout Canadian Law, and then expect to be protected by it. It’s time for the Notwithstanding clause. Enough of Lawyer/Judge made law.

    Vanni, northern Sri Lanka, where war has never ended, Melanie Manel Perera,1 June 2010:
    ”The area is still actually in the hands of the military, which allowed the return of the population but force them to live in absolute poverty. The military blocks any attempts to improve their lives, but does not stop abuse and violence.”
    No funds to meet needs of nearly 200,000 Northern IDPs due to govt refusal to endorse 2010 action plan, 13 March 2010: ”The funding crisis follows the government’s refusal to endorse the 2010 Common Humanitarian Action Plan (CHAP), authoritative sources said. Produced annually through a collaboration of all major humanitarian assistance groups in the country (including UN agencies), the CHAP is a document listing out priority areas for donor funding along with estimates.”
    Tamils in Sri Lanka seeking asylum: A need no more? Rev John Barr, 22 July 2010:

    ”….My recent journey to the north of the island gave a chilling insight into the issues that thousands of Tamils continue to face. …My experience left me questioning whether Tamils are truly safe from harm today. …”

  3. Eureka Einstein | August 22, 2010 at 5:54 am |

    Oppression of 62+ years continues unabated after the cessation of armed struggle(”war is over”) in May 2009:
    i. tens of thousands of IDPs are still detained in camps and 8,000 LTTE ”suspects” without have not been seen by ICRC for more than one year.
    ii. Tamil parliamentarians haven’t been allowed to visit the camps so far(except those who agree to be taken by the army to the ”chosen” camp)
    iii. while IDPs occupying schools force children to have lessons under trees
    iv.Continuing Fishing and Farming restrictions by the Navy and the Army
    v.restricting CHAP(humanitarian agencies) funding and access for NGOs(including UN) to IDPs(who are battered by three decades of war) who are returning to their damaged houses and villages in Northeast – families are so starved, children are staying away from schools(wherever they have begun to function) and obliged to work
    vi. NGOs are prevented from doing counselling and capacity building where they are allowed to give ‘’basic amenities’’
    vii.more restrictions on NGOs were introduced at the end of June and NGOs are taken away from Social Services and brought under Defence Ministry after NGOs reported that the Forces are frantically removing bones skeletons in bunkers exposed by rain washing away the soil and witnesses have been saying that in the last ohase of the war grenades were thrown into bunkers by the army.
    viii.increasing militarisation of Northeast Sri Lanka after the war, blocking land and ‘’space’’ for movement of civilians and taking up the businesses ususally done by civilians
    ix. army-controlled administration of Northeast is increasingly controlled by the army of occupation
    x. continuing to encourage lawlessness by paramilitaries in Northeast
    xi. restricting entry to journalists and foreigners to Northeast(except tourists going to beaches who are accompanied by guides)
    xii. no safety anywhere in Sri Lanka for journalists criticising the government – a carttonist has been missing for more than 6 months and many journalists say they are self-censored.
    xiii. houses for families of the army and Buddha statues are being built while returnees are struggling to get a plastic sheet over their heads or lying under the trees
    xiv. Sinhalese families are being settled and protected in places of IDPs still in the camps – housing complexes are being built for the families of the army and the navy
    land belonging to the IDPs are being grabbed by the Army and the Navy
    xv. land belonging to the IDPs are being grabbed by the Army and the Navy by arbitrarily erecting boards saying ‘’reserved for the Forces’’
    xvi.IDPs are forced to celebrate victory and prevented from commemorating their dead kith and kin. Priests arranging memorial services received death threats from the Forces.
    xvii. Advice by environmental scientists are ignored in managing resources in the Northeast by government ministers’ interference
    xviii.when the oppressed IDPs flee the country, Sri Lankan government asks potential hosts to send them back to Sri Lanka – it means that they don’t want the Tamils to escape their trampling boots.

  4. Eureka Einstein | August 22, 2010 at 6:03 am |

    International Law is zero on internal colonialism:
    UNHCR Eligibility Guidelines for refugee status cites profiles on killings, kidnappings, torture,fear of reprisal, etc. The recent(5July 2010) UNHCR release on Eligibility Guidelines for refugee status for Sri Lankans cites the above-mentioned profiles, but not the 18 profiles of internal colonialism in its Guidleines.

    Does that mean the UN recognises that refugees can flee profiles of oppression recognised by International Law and not those of internal colonialism which is not yet recognised by International Law ?????

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