Don’t panic over Tamils

Queue-jumpers, terrorists, scam artists, anything but legitimate refugees. It’s really a shame when the utterances on certain issues of the day, rather than being governed by human decency, fall along partisan political lines or selfish considerations. But the response of many Canadians – including some media – to the new arrivals from Sri Lanka seeking refuge in Canada is not new. The tone of the ‘welcome’ that greeted them from some sources is the same as it has always been.  

Is it so easy to forget that among the early arrivals from England and France, not to mention so many others seeking refuge here since, most of whom also came by boat, there were people fleeing persecution?

With the exception of the native peoples, who still seem to hold to the remarkable idea that we should share this land, Canadians have a habit of dumping on each new wave of immigrants regardless of origin. And it should not be forgotten that many of those earlier arrivals, those people who many Canadians count as their ancestors, also brought the grievances of their homelands with them.

It has to come as a relief to more recent asylum seekers that Canada’s current immigration law recognizes a person’s right to due process when seeking asylum. Also, Canada is a signatory to the Refugee Convention of 1969, agreeing not to return refugees if they have a valid fear of persecution. Asylum seekers who reach Canada’s territorial waters cannot be sent back to another country unless their claims for protection have been denied.

Lucky for this latest group of refugees, this is not 1914 when a shipload of 376 people from India, most of them Sikhs, was denied permission to enter Canada. Twenty passengers on that ship where killed when they returned to India.

Nor should we forget that more than a quarter of the Jewish passengers on the St. Louis who were fleeing Nazi Germany in 1939 eventually died in the Holocaust after the ship was forced to return to Europe. The 900 passengers had been rejected by Canada, Cuba and the U.S. (At that time, Canada or its senior immigration officials had a policy regarding the admission of Jews to this country that “none is too many”.)

The close to 500 Tamils, including children, are being processed according to the rules of Canada’s immigration laws regarding asylum seekers. If they are found to be legitimate refugees they will be accorded all the considerations that the law prescribes. If they are found to be terrorists they will be removed from the country.

One random survey in Toronto recently showed a majority of respondents not willing to welcome this latest group of refugees. This is disappointing in a city with so many immigrants.

How do we forget that people do not leave their homelands for this country because life is like Eden in the country from which they are fleeing? We come here hoping for a more peaceful and prosperous life for ourselves, our children and grandchildren.

There is no need to panic. Toronto is already home to one of the largest Tamil communities outside Sri Lanka, some 200,000 people. Most of us were unaware of their numbers here until, in desperation over the escalation of the civil war last year in Sri Lanka between the majority Sinhalese and minority Tamils that had been raging for over three decades, local Tamils staged a series of massive demonstrations, including the infamous Gardiner Expressway blockade, in an effort to urge the Canadian government to help save the lives of Tamil civilians in their home country.

What we would hope for in our political leaders is a break from the tradition that feeds the needless fears of the general public with caricatures of immigrants rather than a mature appraisal of the situation and the real needs of those who reach out to Canada for help. For ministers of our government and other politicians to demonize these Sri Lankans is cheap politics and further diminishes our international stature.

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