Why vilify Tamils?

Yet another shipload of Tamils is said to be on its way to Canadian shores, and Ottawa is aiming to prevent this latest group from getting here.

There has been differing opinions surrounding the boatload of close to 500 Tamils, including children, who arrived in Vancouver last month seeking asylum. It was the second such arrival in almost a year.

Before they even arrived here in August, the latest group was vilified as queue jumpers while Public Safety Minister Vic Toews speculated that members of the Tamil Tigers terrorist group were among them. This has been followed by reports that the passengers each paid thousands of dollars to secure passage on the freighter Sun Sea. Yet, does the fact that they could afford passage make them any less desperate to escape the threat to life still being faced by Tamils in Sri Lanka? Or less deserving of refuge?

In announcing the “Blue Blindfold” campaign, a public awareness program on human trafficking, Toews also suggested this group of migrants is part of a human smuggling operation that was meant to test the viability of similar voyages organized by smugglers.

We understand the importance of keeping the channels open for refugees to enter Canada, but human smuggling operations are significantly tied to other illegal activities. And it has to be a matter of concern that asylum seekers coming by boat from Sri Lanka may be paying their passage to people who support the Tigers, designated a terrorist organization by Canada.

So, yes, further shiploads of Tamils should be checked long before they reach our waters. We believe it is prudent for Canadian authorities to find whatever channels there are to ensure that anyone seeking refuge here is legitimate and impress on asylum seekers that Canada should not be taken for granted.

This will require skill and diplomacy since attempts by the United States as well as Australia to stop such ships in international waters have been legally questionable. The federal government took a hard line ahead of the August arrival in Vancouver of that boatload of Tamils and already that tone has received international attention and criticism, even some suggestion of racism. In their rush to judgment, leading voices in the Conservative government did not choose a tempered response in recognition of Canada’s policy on refugees.

The better course would have been to refrain from speculating about terrorists since there is yet no proof. After all, when a case is before the courts the official response is that there is no comment on it for just that reason. And these refugees are only this week entering court.

Why are they being vilified just for wanting to live in Canada? Is this a new measure of Canadian-ness? Among newer immigrants in decades past there was actually an urgency to welcome others. Why are refugees now viewed with the same lack of sympathy reserved for the homeless? Why are they being cast as a public burden?

Refugees are at first somewhat dependent on the government for support, but they do not remain so. Many of the Tamils, for example, are said to already have family here in Canada. So it only makes sense that once they are processed they will reach out to their waiting family members who will support them.

Tamils in Canada are not a needy lot. In fact, they have a thriving community that contributes much to the Canadian economy both commercially and charitably.

Human smuggling is a serious issue, and given the associated problems between human smuggling and human trafficking it is high time these issues were addressed. But, as government officials conflate this recent shipload of Tamils with these issues they seem to have lost sight of the desperation that led these people to take whatever risky means were available to reach safe haven in the first place.

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