Racism in Canada: Hostility to Asian (Tamil) Refugees

Imagine … you risk life and limb to cross the Pacific in a freighter. Eventually you dock at Vancouver Island in British Columbia. You claim refugee status with the hope of starting a new life. You are a Sri Lankan national of Tamil origin.IMG_5509
Creative Commons License photo credit: un_owen

Will a purported illustrious Canadian empathy greet you? Will Canadians’ celebrated sense of compassion with the stranger at their shores define your arrival? Or will the veil on Canadian intolerance and racism be lifted?

While the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) commend the “exemplary” work of the Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) in coordinating your arrival and reception, some determined politicians and vocal citizens demand you be arbitrarily refused the right to land; a claim paradoxically being made by Canadians, whose ancestors never asked the Algonquin, Six Nations, or Cree for immigration forms when they first arrived on Canadian shores. Some ‘nice folks’ think you should be given food [long pause] and sent back from where you came. Others believe your freighter should have been intercepted on the high seas and diverted to somewhere in South Asia. There is even annoyance that Canada’s Constitution guarantees you the right to ‘life, liberty and security.’ There is resentment towards you because Canada has its own problems, including appalling conditions on native reserves and homeless people on the streets of major cities. We need to deal with them first. Disregard the fact that government policy, racism, poor-bashing, and apathy are root causes of these social problems.

Are such reactions to your arrival due to the fact that you are not white? No, of course not! But look more closely… racism is seamlessly veiled behind rhetoric concerning refugees “jumping the queue” and talk of “freeloaders.” As Stephen Hume points out in a recent Vancouver Sun article, “Raise this uncomfortable theory and a din of sanctimonious denial rises. However, why the fuss over a few Tamils compared with larger numbers of asylum-seekers from Russia or Hungary or the United States? Why aren’t these asylum-seekers subjected to similar vituperation as queue-jumpers?”

Perhaps Matthew Claxton, a Canadian reporter for the Langley Advance explains best the reason for the unenthusiastic reaction to your arrival. He writes: “I’m having a hard time imagining a boat of English-speaking white Irish-Catholics [from Northern Ireland] getting the same vicious reception that the Tamils have received since they arrived….”. Claxton’s contrast of your plight to imaginary boat people from Northern Ireland is not accidental. Your arrival on the freighter, along with the other 491 Sri Lankan nationals of Tamil origin, is met with concerns that some of you might be terrorists. Would similar anxieties arise over determining who among the Irish-Catholic boat people is an IRA bomber, an IRA supporter, or who is a bystander or accomplice out of fear?

Whatever your hypothetical answer to this question, it is essential to concede that it is not a crime to seek asylum. In fact, when a person arrives at a Canadian port of entry, s/he is entitled to make an application for refugee status. Once the person is in Canadian waters, they cannot legally be turned back. Moreover, labelling Tamil asylum seekers as “terrorists” before they have an opportunity to make their case is unacceptable, especially given that Canadian and international law requires that refugees have access to individual and unbiased determination of their claims.

Wanda Yamamoto, Canadian Council for Refugees (CCR) President, recently explained that “[o]ver the years Canada has saved the lives of thousands of Tamils fleeing persecution, by providing access to a fair and independent refugee system. Whether they arrive by plane, foot or boat, people seeking refuge from human rights abuses have a right to an individual hearing on the reasons why they fled—a right recently reaffirmed by [Canadian] Parliament”.

“Taking to the seas in a boat like this is very risky,” said David Poopalapillai, National Spokesperson for the Canadian Tamil Congress . “We can only imagine that the people on board must have been very desperate to undertake such a dangerous voyage. We hope that our fellow Canadians will listen sympathetically to their stories and will support the government’s fair application of the law.”

We hope so too!

Tessa M. Blaikie is a sociology honours students at the University of Winnipeg in Manitoba, Canada. Kimberley A. Ducey is a faculty member in the Department of Sociology, University of Winnipeg.