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Once, We Welcomed Tamil Refugees

June 24, 2011

Once, We Welcomed Tamil Refugees

Twenty-five years later, Canada jails "boat people"

by David Gordon Koch

Tamil migrant children peer out of the Burnaby Youth Detention Centre where they were held after arriving in BC on the MV Sun Sea. Photo: Isaac K Oommen

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.

"Noise demonstrations" showed support for imprisoned Tamil migrants. Supporters used horns to signal their presence across the field outside the centre. Photo: No-one Is Illegal-Vancouver

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.

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Comments

Canada, Watch Out

These Tamil "refugees" used the war in Sri Lanka to make way into the greener pasteurs of the West. Now they are hell-bent on discrediting Sri Lanka with whatever they can. It is obvious that these wolves in sheeps' clothing only care about not getting back to the now-peaceful Sri Lanka.

Canadian MP’s, whose greed for ‘votes’ and ‘campaign money’(aka terror-money) from Tamil expatriates lost their rational thinking, nurtured these terror-supporters. They now find themselves in a pretty good funk: The Tamils themselves are now competing against them for the Canadian Parliament! Recently, a ltte-supporter was elected to the Canadian parliament: her first 'action' in parliament: to dig up the separatist cries against Sri Lanka. Hopefully at least now, the Canadians will see the threat these people pose to Canada's future, and how cunningly they move about to propagate their separatist agendae. With nearly half-a-million Tamil terror-supporters in Toronto alone, the Canadians appear to have dug themselves into a deep hole.

As seen elsewhere in the world (Australia, France, Norway etc), these 'refugees' will colonize themselves in suburban towns, and sooner or later, will feel 'discriminated' by the very Canadians who looked after them as refugees. Then the clamors for "separately governed towns" will begin.

Canada needs to be very vigilant! If not, trouble in Toronto will not be too far away.

Srebrenica not compared to Sri Lanka

You could see how the paid missions and agents are working for the majoritarian regime in this longstanding conflict.

Communal polity in Sri Lanka is much larger and longer than Srebrenica, Sudan and any other worst abusers in the world.
Sri Lanka sets a precedence to others to come.

The smiling soldiers of mono-ethnic composition loading nakedbodies of men, women and children on the military truck in the Channel 4 video footage is a testimony for Sri Lankan vilent culture and history

Without a thorough knowledge of Mafia and criminal LTTE

Dear Friend ,You may be a stuednt of journalism but you dont have a thorough knowledge of Mafia LTTE or Tamail Tigers.
Dont expect much from a Phd student in politics.The knowledge of politics will be gained by practice not by reading something.
Do you know our ordinary uneducated famer is more knowledgeable than the socalled Phd student Mr.Ajay Parasram.
Once this mafia has prohibited more than 300Millin Dollars per year ,through the drug business and from the forced collection of money from the diaspora Tamils.
Stil they are doing the same business in Montreal which will cost more than 300 Million Dollars.Go to Jane International and the other resources.The human smuggling
also anthore source of income earning for the LTTE.

sun sea was organized by the Tamil Tigers

The ships MV Ocean Lady and MV Sun Sea was organized by Tamil Tigers. The terrorists raised millions of dollars by smuggling people. The terrorists are using the money to build their HQ in Canada

Once we welcomes Tamil refugees

Sri Lankan government work overtyime to convince the foreign right wing governments that minorities are treated fairly but, the truth is that their areas are occupied with mono-ethnic army that subjugate and enslave them. If things are rosy for Tamil civilians why cannot the army allow foreigners and journalists to have free access to those areas?

Tamil Nadu--the ancestral

Tamil Nadu--the ancestral home of the Tamils--is a hop and a skip from Sri Lanka, even by boat. Yet hundreds of thousands of tamil 'refugees' (over 70% revisit Sri Lanka within a year of being granted refugee status here) have made the treck to Canada. The excuse given is that India is too 'poor' to accept these people. Yet India is the world's largest arms importer, and has spent untold billions accummulating a massive nuclear arsenal. It's time Canada puts its foot down--enough of being the third world's doormat. The Tamil 'refugees,' including the ones who lied about how badly they were persecuted, should be deported to Tamil Nadu, in India--no ifs, ands, or buts.

the geologist proved the Sri

the geologist proved the Sri Lanka was part broken off india by a huge earth quake and tsunami, Tamils were already living there. Nice Fiction again.

??

Tamil Nadu is home for eelam tamils? Eelam tamils hav been living in modern day Sri Lanka for more than 2500 years! Ur claim that Tamil Nadu is the ancestral home is dispicable. By following ur theory then the ancestral home of hindi ppl is in Greece! Ancestral home of sinhala ppl is in Orissa(India). The ancestral home of the ppl in USA, Canada, NZ, Aus are all back in the UK

People of Tamil Eelam

Tamil Nadu is home for eelam tamils? Eelam tamils hav been living in modern day Sri Lanka for more than 2500 years! Ur claim that Tamil Nadu is the ancestral home is dispicable. By following ur theory then the ancestral home of hindi ppl is in Greece! Ancestral home of sinhala ppl is in Orissa(India). The ancestral home of the ppl in USA, Canada, NZ, Aus are all back in the UK

Sri Lankan agent making comments

As you can see about fiction being wrote by these Sri Lankan agents, if Sri Lanka is a rosy place for Tamils to live, why would UN make a report that states 40,000 Tamils were intentionally killed in the last few weeks of the war by the Sri Lankan government.

Sri Lankan government spent millions on discrediting Tamil diaspora. As far as I am concerned the Sri Lankan government had the knowledge of these ships and able to alert Canadian Government, Makes you wonder if the Sri Lankan government organized these X-Ltte ships, which they captured and make the money on human smuggling.

Tamil Eelam as separate country

Tamil Nadu is home for eelam tamils? Eelam tamils hav been living in modern day Sri Lanka for more than 2500 years! Ur claim that Tamil Nadu is the ancestral home is dispicable. By following ur theory then the ancestral home of hindi ppl is in Greece! Ancestral home of sinhala ppl is in Orissa(India). The ancestral home of the ppl in USA, Canada, NZ, Aus are all back in the UK

tamil eelam as a seperate country

Tamil Nadu means tamil country, is the homeland of tamils. Tamil Nadu has 72 million tamils. Why tamils need another country. They already have a separate country. It is obvious tamils came to Sri Lanka as a migrants from tamil nadu. Most tamils brought by English for tea and rubber plantations, labor work, railway and road works, scavenger jobs etc same like in Malaysia, Myanmar, Fiji, Mauritius, South Africa, British Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica. Even Prabakaran’s father migrated to Sri Lanka in early 1950’s.
With bogus claims, tamils try to annex east and northern parts of Sri Lanka to tamil nadu. This is expansionism and interventionism. It is ok tamils to live in Sri Lanka but no way of giving a portion of our motherland to migrant expansionism. If so Polish and Turks in Germany, Arabs in France, Indians in U.K, Africans in U.S.A, Indians in Dubai also can claim independent countries respectively. Very soon tamils in Canada will claim Toronto as neweelam = neelam. Canadian NDP why not pass a bill in Canadian parliament for neelam in Canada.

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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.

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