“No one puts their children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land,” goes a verse penned by Somali poet Warsan Shire. She should know. Shire goes on: no one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark; you only run for the border when you see the whole city run.
Over the years, Canada has had its share of people seeking refuge. And, attitudes have changed over time. While some of our actions, like in the case of Vietnamese boat people, make us proud, there are numerous others when our response has been cringe-worthy.
Our current collective outpouring over the Syrian refugees flooding Europe stands in stark contrast to a time when two boatloads of Tamil refugees actually arrived on our shores. That was just five years ago.
Our current collective outpouring over the Syrian refugees flooding Europe stands in stark contrast to a time when two boatloads of Tamil refugees actually arrived on our shores.
It was August 2010 and a rickety MV Sun Sea was sighted off Vancouver Island. The response was almost immediate: a federal government keen on pressing home its tough-on-crime image made it clear that the 492 Tamils fleeing a civil war in Sri Lanka would be presumed to be suspected criminals or terrorists allied with the Tamil Tigers.
Ten months earlier, another vessel had arrived on the west coast carrying 76 Tamil asylum seekers. The tone was set early, driving home the message to Canadians that there were hordes out there waiting to milk our generosity.
Then Public Safety Minister Vic Toews issued a statement declaring, “Human smuggling is a despicable crime and any attempted abuses of our nation’s generosity for financial gain are utterly unacceptable.”
As some in the media echoed the government rhetoric, public opinion seemed to go along with the view that these boat loads were just “queue-jumpers” wanting to get in in a hurry.
In October that year (2010), the government sent two ministers to Vancouver to announce the tabling of Bill C-49 at the site of the moored, barely seaworthy Sun Sea. Minister Toews explained that the bill was “cracking down on those criminals who would … endanger the safety and security of Canadian communities.”
Over the following years, the Sun Sea continued to be exploited for public relation purposes with repeated press conferences held with the ship as a backdrop. It culminated with the Conservatives producing a TV ad for the 2011 elections that drove home the message that unlike its ‘soft’ opponents, the ruling party would keep uninvited refugees on boats out of Canada.
For the record, five years on, many of the seafarers have been found to be refugees in need of Canada’s protection. Only 11 have been determined to be members of the Tamil Tigers terrorist group.
History repeating itself
As Canadians come to grips with the refugee crisis in Europe, it is worth remembering that like the Tamils accused of paying human smugglers to jump the queue, Alan Kurdi’s father too paid far more than travel costs to facilitate his family’s perilous escape.
Tamil organizations, though, don’t want to see the same “queue jumping” charge used against the fleeing Syrians. The Canadian Tamil Congress (CTC) reminded Canadians that their people faced a similar dire situation in 2009 during the last phase of a brutal civil war in Sri Lanka in which more than 70,000 people are believed to have lost their lives.
“At that time, our desperate cries and appeals to the United Nations and the international community went unheard,” David Poopalapillai, the CTC spokesperson said. “We simply cannot sit by and watch history repeat itself.”
“We simply cannot sit by and watch history repeat itself.” — Tamil community spokesperson
The race element
There were, of course, those for whom our approach to the Tamils was reminiscent of the harsh words used to turn back Sikhs and Hindus on board the Komagata Maru in 1914 and Jewish refugees on board the MS St. Louis fleeing persecution in 1939. The National Council of Canadian Tamils wanted the 2011 election ad pulled off the air.
“[It is] is xenophobic and borders on racism,” Krisna Saravanamuttu, a council spokesman was quoted as saying, adding it appealed to the “worst instincts of Canadians to score political points and votes.”
In an opinion piece in The Tyee, Bill Tieleman wrote: Let’s also make a wild guess. The Conservatives have noticed that these refugee claimants were not, shall we say, Scandinavian-looking.”
There is a clear race element in the way we treat refugees, said Sujith Xavier, a law professor at the University of Windsor. “We saw it in the treatment of people who came on the Sun Sea and continued deportations of African asylum seekers from countries like Burundi.”
In the wake of the Sun Sea episode, the Canadian Council for Refugees, too, had expressed its concern about the undermining of public support for refugees. “Unfortunately we are seeing in Canada a pattern of anti-refugee rhetoric, familiar to many other countries [that tap into] into racist and xenophobic popular sentiments… to win votes.”
Distant wars in the developing world and the human hordes they create are always a far worse experience for its victims than the world will ever get to know.
As Warsan Shire says in her poem, the harsh words and the dirty looks we direct at them roll off their backs “maybe because the blow is softer than a limb torn off.”