Saturday, August 28, 2010

Tamils and the difference between immigrants and refugees.

O CanadaImage by jurvetson via Flickr
A common refrain regarding the arrival of the Tamil refugees aboard the MV Sun Sea is that
they have "jumped the queue" and taken the place of "legitimate" immigrants who await entry to Canada.
The accusation is emotive but it is just plain wrong. Immigrants and refugees are entirely different groups. Each has its own stringent set of rules for admission to Canada.
Immigrants are people who want to come to Canada and have the opportunity to meet with officials at a Canadian embassy and apply under the criteria established by law. They must meet certain requirements and quotas established by Canada's needs and circumstances.
Refugees are desperate people in flight. They have often been forced from their homes, subjected to human rights abuses, persecuted by the very authorities to whom they'd have to apply if they wished to obtain documents required to emigrate.
They often can't travel to a Canadian embassy to apply for immigration because it would put them at great risk from those they are fleeing in the first place. In fact, international law recognizes the reality that refugees often cannot meet the normal legal requirements for entry into a country of safe haven and international agreements signed by Canada prohibit governments from penalizing refugees who enter or remain in a country illegally.
Most have lost all their possessions. What money they do have is often taken from them by smugglers who promise to get them out of immediate danger in exchange for cash. There's no guarantee that they will be taken to safety. Sometimes they just get dumped at sea. Sometimes the boats sink. Sometimes they get killed by pirates. Sometimes they get betrayed to the authorities they flee. This is not a new phenomenon. It happened to United Empire Loyalists fleeing the American Revolution, it happened to Irish families fleeing the famine, it happened to Jews fleeing the Nazi Holocaust, it has happened to Vietnamese, Sikhs and North Koreans. So the Tamil refugees are not unusual. But that is why we don't have lineups for people in flight or expect them to travel to a Canadian embassy and apply along with other immigrants seeking to come to Canada from a safe country. The circumstances in Sri Lanka are said by some to be "improving." Here's what the Hong Kong-based Asian Human Rights Commission said in its last statement this year about conditions there:
"Looking for human rights in Sri Lanka is becoming increasingly like looking for water on the moon or in the desert ... Sri Lanka today is one of the most violent societies where there is great permissiveness of extrajudicial killings. In the recent decades extrajudicial killings have taken the form of disappearances or various kinds of killings after arrest and while in police or military custody."
On Aug. 19, Amnesty International issued the following statement: "Amnesty International recalls the many humanitarian workers who have fallen victim to human rights violations in Sri Lanka and the families of victims who have been frustrated in their pursuit of justice. Amnesty International calls on the UN to independently investigate violations of human rights and humanitarian law in Sri Lanka." Many of the workers slain, it points out, were Tamils.
Canada has a legal obligation under the Conventions Relating to the Status of Refugees and the Convention against Torture towards refugees from such conditions, including these Tamils. The Convention against Torture enjoins Canada -- without exception -- not to return a person to a country where there is such a risk.
Sometimes those seeking asylum don't qualify under the stringent rules for admission. When that's the case, they are denied refugee status and deported. Yet after rigorous hearings and reviews, Canada has been granting recognition of refugee status to most Tamil applicants, even though it turns down almost half of refugee claims overall according to the U.S. independent monitor RSD Watch.
So Canada is no pushover and these Tamils haven't jumped any queue. They've been dealt with as the law requires and have subjected themselves to the appropriate administrative reviews and assessments under Canadian law and which are now taking place.
shume@islandnet.com
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