Rocking the boat
In August 2010, the MV Sun Sea arrived in Vancouver carrying 492 Tamil refugees fleeing post-war Sri Lanka. One person had already died during the course of the ship’s journey. All on board, including women and children, were immediately detained upon arrival in Canada. As of this writing, many, including women and children, are still in jail. Their mass imprisonment comes on the heels of the detention the previous November of 76 Tamil refugees who arrived in Victoria aboard the rusty Ocean Lady. The Conservative government, under the direction of Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney, had insisted that all the refugees on board the Ocean Lady were terrorists. It would be a full six months later before the government would admit that it never had any evidence to substantiate those claims.
By then, however, it was too late: anti-Tamil and anti-refugee hysteria had spread like wildfire. The MV Sun Sea arrived mere weeks after that most tepid of mea culpas from the government for its wilful mistreatment of the Ocean Lady refugees. Yet the new wave of hysteria that greeted these most recent arrivals was arguably worse than its predecessor. The primary difference was that whereas the Conservatives had before focused their attentions on merely one boat of arrivals, now they began an aggressive campaign to systemically undercut protections afforded to all refugees. The proposed legislation, Bill C-49, was modelled off Australian immigration laws that Australia’s own High Court held last year were unfair to the point of being illegal. It sought to penalize refugees for the means by which they escape danger. This is in direct contradiction with Canada’s United Nations obligations.
For several weeks after the MV Sun Sea’s arrival, Paul Fromm, the infamous neo-Nazi, was given uncritical coverage in mainstream media with his demands that the refugees be sent back. In more recent weeks, there has been growing criticism of the Conservatives’ fear-mongering. While that work often feels like an uphill battle against state machinated-paranoia, it remains ever vital that we uphold the universal rights of safety and mobility for all people fleeing violence.
1. Human cargo
In May 2009, the Sri Lankan government ended 26 years of intermittent civil war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) by killing tens of thousands of Tamil civilians. 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 nongovernmental organizations have condemned the desperate living conditions in the camps, citing severe overcrowding, erratic medical care and irregular access to water. About a third of the 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.
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 this way:
- All of the faces on the ship were new, no one knew each other. What I saw were people who feared for their lives…This is a journey that plays with death: We faced seven or eight treacherous storms, and I remember one – on maybe October 10 or October 11 – that still haunts me. I thought death was inevitable.
Once on land, all 72 refugees were taken to a Vancouver jail and the Canadian government went into overdrive. Alykhan Velshi, Kenney’s spokesperson, went on record with rhetoric flamboyant enough to rival most internet message boards, proclaiming, “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 nuances of global migration, the imminent danger of “snakeheads” (gangs who smuggle humans) has been a recurring fear for Velshi.
The refugees 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. By January, the migrants had been released, but it would be another six months before Canadian state authorities would finally admit that they had had no proof.
Scarcely a month after that admission, on August 13, after nearly three months at sea, the Sun Sea arrived in Victoria. There were 492 people on board, including women and children, not including one person who had died at sea. Several of the children were removed from their parents and placed in B.C. foster care. Everyone else was moved to jails. Men, including teenagers, were detained in Vancouver’s maximum security jail, the Fraser Regional Correctional Centre. Women without children were detained at the Alouette Correctional Centre for Women. Mothers and children were detained at the Burnaby Youth Custody Services Centre. One pregnant woman who had originally been detained at Alouette was transferred to the Burnaby jail after her delivery. It is unclear whether or not the father got to see the child.
Nearly half a year later, many of the refugees, including children and mothers, continue to languish in those detention centres and the government continues to appeal the releases of those who have been let out.
This mass imprisonment occurred the same month the Conservatives revealed that despite falling crime rates, it intended to spend billions of dollars on expanding prisons. In addition, provincial officials stated that B.C. will receive “full compensation” from Ottawa for “housing” the migrants. All of this demonstrates the interlocking nature of the relationship between Canada’s immigration and prison systems. Yet 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.
The machinery that allows this wholesale criminalization of refugees, however, extends well beyond the walls of Canadian jails, buttressed as it is by shoddy mainstream journalism. In the case of the Sun Sea, for instance, much was made of the idea of 500 people on board. The number was 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 percent of this population. On top of this, the Sun Sea migrants constitute only 0.1 percent of the refugees who even apply to Canada. In fact, the number of Sun Sea migrants is about the same as the number of asylum seekers who arrive in Canada by plane in a week.
For weeks, every article about the Sun Sea opened by recounting the story of the Ocean Lady, complete with all the old allegations of terrorism. Most of these newer articles did not mention that all those allegations had been shown false. Kinder articles limited 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 that “According to a Canada Border Services Agency [CBSA] 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.
The vilification of the Sun Sea migrants, both for being Tamil and being refugees, was so unchecked that the day after their arrival, Paul Fromm was able to arrange a rally of “concerned citizens of Victoria” at Canadian Forces Base Esquimalt, where the migrants were 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 was that “the Sun Sea is just the beginning of an all-out invasion.” To that end, it concluded with “Send the illegals back!!!!!”
CTV would go on to serve 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 – were his connections with the KKK disclosed, thereby facilitating the normalization of his racism.
Unsurprisingly, there is no acknowledgement of the hypocrisy of Canada, a settler nation built on the theft of Indigenous lands, having the audacity to jail people for daring to seek safety. Instead, the collective punishment of the Sun Sea migrants was 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 Rohan Gunaranta as 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. Gunaratna had been the Conservatives go-to terrorism expert in the Ocean Lady case, but he was quickly discredited by IRB adjudicators.
2. The welcome mat: ‘None is too many’
In 1914, the Komagata Maru arrived in Vancouver with 376 Indian passengers. One newspaper headline read “Hindu invaders now in Vancouver harbour.” Most of the refugees were Sikh. They were forbidden from disembarking. The passengers were detained on board for two months until the ship was finally forced to leave. Upon their return to India, British soldiers killed 26 of the passengers.
In 1939, during World War II, the St. Louis, carrying 907 Jewish passengers fleeing Nazi Germany sought entry into Canada, but Immigration Director Frederick Charles Blair 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.” Prime Minister Mackenzie King declared the St. Louis “not a Canadian problem” and Justice Minister Ernest Lapointe pronounced himself “emphatically opposed” to letting in the refugees. An anonymous immigration officer would proclaim the infamous words, “None is too many.” And so the ship finally 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, just two years later, if those words are to mean anything, we cannot afford to repeat history. And yet, the Conservatives spent much of the winter of 2010 attempting to push through Bill C-49, which would have given the government broad discretionary powers to “designate” any given group refugee claimants as an “irregular arrival,” with no definition given of what constitutes “irregular.” Though in its media releases, the government would insist it was merely trying to target human smugglers, the bill itself provides that once a given group of asylum seekers is designated, everyone in the group will – that is to say, must – be punished. For example, designated claimants, including children, must be jailed for a year, with no access to review processes. The arbitrary detention, the separation of families, and the criminalization of irregular entry puts the bill in direct contravention of domestic and international law, ranging from the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms to the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Public opposition to Bill C-49 has been strong enough that the bill many not get passed. However, concerns still linger that the government will simply introduce similar legislation in its stead. For instance, opposition parties have stated that while they oppose the bill’s mandatory and arbitrary detention of refugees, they support crackdowns on human smugglers. However, this false dichotomy between the powerless refugee and the evil smuggler has dire implications for refugees themselves, since refugees necessarily need assistance crossing borders. This is assistance that human smugglers, by definition, provide. As James C. Hathaway, renowned refugee law scholar, has noted, “The more difficult it is to get across a border to safety on one’s own, the more sensible it is to hire a smuggler to navigate the barriers to entry. Smugglers are thus the critical bridge to get at-risk people to safety.”
Albert Einstein escaped Nazi Europe in 1933, a flight made possible only with the help of human smugglers. In fact, North America has its own history of human smuggling, perhaps most famously in the form of the Underground Railroad. By 1850, hundreds of thousands of people had credited that network of safe houses, secret routes and human smugglers for their rescue from white American slave owners. The contemporary veneration of Harriet Tubman and of the Quakers, some of the most famous abolitionists of that period, helps us recognize the vital and ongoing work that human smugglers continue to provide (especially when every year nearly 500 migrants die at the U.S.-Mexico border).
Community organizers and activists from across Canada remain alert to the government’s persistent exploitation of xenophobia and nationalistic paranoia to push through inhumane legislation. Moreover, as the poster series from No One is Illegal (Vancouver) declares, “I Am A Human Smuggler,” we cannot despair in the face of governmental machinations. Rather, we take strength in the histories of resistance worldwide. We are encouraged by the underground mappings of refuge and protection that connect people across borders and traumas to save lives.
Fathima Cader is a student in the Faculty of Law at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.