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MONTREAL—"We thought we were going to die...because we were not seeing any land, or light, or any boat or anything."
Sooriyakumaran Sathananthan was among more than 150 Tamil asylum-seekers discovered in a pair of crammed lifeboats off the coast of Newfoundland in August, 1986.
The Tamil refugees, who had fled persecution in Sri Lanka, were quickly granted work permits by Canadian authorities.
Nearly a quarter-century later, when another boatload of Tamil migrants reached this country’s shores, Canada responded differently.
Of the 492 Tamil refugee claimants who arrived in August 2010 on the MV Sun Sea, nearly all were detained by Canadian immigration authorities; some remain in custody.
In the wake of the Sun Sea's arrival, the Canadian government has pledged to pass a bill that critics say will punish refugees deemed "illegal," with measures including a one-year mandatory jail sentence without judicial review.
"We see a very different government now," says David Poopalapillai, spokesperson for the Canadian Tamil Congress. "The compassion is not there."
Today, Sathananthan works full-time as a delivery truck driver in Toronto. Over the years, he sent remittances back to Sri Lanka, and sponsored several family members to come to Canada as refugees. He says he's happy to have built a better life for them. But his road to asylum was long and difficult.
In the early 1980s, still living in Sri Lanka, he was forced to drop out of school after the death of his father. He worked as a farmer to support his mother and four siblings, but life in the South Asian island country became unbearable when civil war erupted in 1983.
The government of Sri Lanka—under the control of an elite group of Sinhala Buddhist nationalists—had persecuted the Tamil-speaking population for decades. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or LTTE, took up arms, demanding national independence. Atrocities were committed on both sides, with civilians caught in the middle.
"So many people died then," Sathananthan recalls.
He fled the country with his cousin to seek a better life abroad, first traveling to Yemen. But work there was scarce.
"That's when people said, you have to go to Canada," he says. "Your family will have a better life."
Sathananthan and his cousin flew to East Germany before crossing the Iron Curtain into West Germany. In July 1986, they embarked for Canada on the freighter Aurigae with more than 150 other Tamils.
Sathananthan said they spent about two weeks at sea before the captain of the crowded cargo ship set the migrants adrift in two lifeboats. For nearly three days they drifted with no sign of land.
"We didn't have any food, any water...we [were] thinking we were going to pass away," he says.
They were finally spotted by fishermen and brought ashore by Canadian officials on August 11, 1986. Upon their arrival, the migrants were met with enormous media coverage and an outpouring of public sympathy.
The asylum-seekers were released within days and quickly granted work permits.
"There was no aggressive detention," says Peter Showler, director of the Refugee Forum, an Ottawa-based think tank.
Two-and-a-half decades later, the federal government has adopted a harsh stance aimed at discouraging "illegal migrants" from entering Canada by sea in the wake of the MV Sun Sea's arrival, Showler says.
"The government clearly has admitted that they have got this aggressive detention policy because they want to deter additional boats from coming," he says.
As of May 30, 2011, the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) had ordered the deportation of four of the Sun Sea migrants, on the grounds that they were members of the LTTE, a group also known as the Tamil Tigers.
The Harper government listed the LTTE as a terrorist organization in 2006.
In March 2011, when the IRB ordered the deportation of one of the migrants—whose name cannot be released due to a publication ban—Public Safety Minister Vic Toews called the decision "an unmitigated victory for the rule of law."
Critics say the government is making criminals out of refugees, while downplaying the atrocities committed by the Sri Lankan state.
"When we're talking about violence committed by resistance movements, we're talking about violence that imperialism is quick to condemn, because state violence is never considered terrorism, when in fact it's the greatest form of terrorism," says Harsha Walia, an organizer with migrant justice group No-One Is Illegal.
Activists from the group began organizing to support the MV Sun Sea migrants even before Canadian authorities boarded the boat last August near Victoria, BC. The group opposed what Walia calls a climate of xenophobia fueled by the Harper government and mainstream media.
"There's a particular hysteria about boats arriving...coupled with the post 9/11 climate, and the criminalizing and the fear-mongering around terrorism," she says.
Janet Dench, executive director for the Canadian Council for Refugees, says the government has exaggerated the threat posed by the asylum-seekers to win political mileage.
"You condemn the Tigers for their bad deeds, but you don't take an equal position on emphasizing the abuses that many Tamils themselves have suffered at the hands of the Sri Lankan government," Dench says.
Lawyers for the Canada Border Services Agency have stated in IRB hearings that anyone who did business with the Tigers—including, in one case, a rice farmer who sold crops to the LTTE—should be considered inadmissible to Canada.
Critics say that since the LTTE acted as a de facto government in predominantly Tamil areas of Sri Lanka, with a military and police force at its disposal, it was practically impossible to avoid dealing with the group.
"Many of the Tamils who make refugee claims, they make claims against the Tigers," Dench says. "And yet you don't hear any sympathy for the Tamils who have suffered abuse at the hands of the Tigers, and they're asking for our protection on that basis."
The civil war that displaced Sathananthan and his family officially ended in 2009, amidst reports of mass civilian casualties at the hands of the Sri Lankan military and the LTTE.
Since then, the UN's refugee agency has noted improvements in the human rights situation in Sri Lanka.
But hundreds of Tamils suspected of affiliating with the LTTE are arbitrarily arrested annually and detained for months or years without charge, according to a report released in February 2011 by Amnesty International. Many are tortured in custody, the report adds.
Thousands of Tamil civilians live under military surveillance in "open air prisons" in the country's northeast, according to Ajay Parasram, a doctoral student researching Sri Lankan politics at Carleton University.
"I think that's especially concerning because really the civil war was about the systematic exclusion and subordination of the Tamil people," he says.
As migrants from Sri Lanka continue to seek refuge abroad, the federal Conservative Party has pledged to pass a bill that would keep people designated as "irregular arrivals" in jail for at least one year upon their arrival, without any chance for judicial review of their detention.
The Liberals, Bloc Quebecois and New Democrats vowed to oppose Bill C-49—which the NDP's then-immigration critic dubbed the "attack refugees bill"—when it was first introduced to the House of Commons by Vic Toews last October.
Harper now appears poised to impose the reforms, which he says will deter migrants who attempt to "jump the immigration queue."
Critics say the notion that asylum-seekers must wait in line for asylum violates international agreements including the 1951 Refugee Convention, of which Canada is a signatory.
"There's no queue," Poopalapillai says. "When you have the fear that you're being persecuted, you're being raped, you're being jailed, you're being gunned down, do you have the time to go...and ask for a visa?"
Groups of migrants designated as "irregular" by the government would also be barred from receiving permanent residency status for five years, leaving them in a state of legal limbo. University of Victoria refugee law specialist Donald Galloway calls the government's reforms "anti-humanitarian."
"What they're recognizing is that if somebody is found to be a genuine refugee, but hasn't been given permanent resident status, we can always take the refugee status away," Galloway says.
"You're not going to be able to get long-term work, you're not going to be able to get a credit rating in this country, you're not going to be able to settle down, or buy yourself a home," he adds.
He also noted that the bill would apply retroactively, giving the government discretionary power to name the Sun Sea migrants and others as "irregular."
"It seems that this is a level of viciousness, of anti-humanitarian venom, that we haven't seen before," he says.
Walia says activists should oppose C-49 while building an anti-racist culture.
"They're not just policies," she says. "They exist in climate of racism, xenophobia, and anti-migrant sentiment."
David Koch is a freelance reporter and a journalism student living in Ottawa.
The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.