In the aftermath of the arrival of a boat containing 490 Tamil refugees off the coast of British Columbia, the government is now seeking ways to prevent this form of illegal immigration from happening in the future. Canada needs to develop a better system to handle such occurrences, which are sure to continue since the Sri Lankan civil war ended last year. A recent Angus Reid poll shows that 46 per cent of Canadians think immigration is negatively affecting Canada. This is a dangerous direction, as immigration has made Canada what it is. But the system is broken right now and the government waited too long to attempt to fix it.
In Sri Lanka, Tamils are an ethnic minority (about 30 per cent) to the Sinhala majority. When the Dominion of Ceylon won its independence from Britain in 1948 the name was changed to Sri Lanka, but independence did not lead to peace. The Sinhalese tried to make Sri Lanka into their own nation using a series of laws to isolate the Tamils from positions of power. For example, a 1956 act made Sinhalese the only official language of Sri Lanka, forcing many Tamils out of government positions. In comparison, an attempt to make Buddhism the official religion of the state was seen as a sleight to the predominately Hindu and Muslim Tamil. Thus the pieces were set for what would become a long and deadly civil war. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a separatist movement, has since been listed as a terrorist organization by Canada and other nations. It was defeated in 2009.
Tamils are an ethnic group, whereas the Tamil Tigers are a militant one. Members of the latter are banned from receiving refugee status in Canada because of crimes against humanity, but the number of Tamils associated with the terrorist group is small. Would-be refugees who make it to Canada are given the same charter rights as landed immigrants, such as health care and education. The worry, of course, is that Canada is ill-prepared to take refugees who attempt to come to Canada illegally-- especially when they arrive by boat and can't be turned away.
A document released last week shows that the Canadian government was made aware of the plausibility of large numbers of Tamils attempting to come to Canada by as early as January. With the fighting officially declared over last year, it should have been obvious to the Canadian government that the 250,000 or so Sri Lankan nationals living in Canada would seek to have friends and family sent here.
Human traffickers play a large role in bringing refugees to Canada-- they charge large sums to move people in what are often terrible conditions and they make promises, like citizenship, that they cannot keep. The government needs to make steps in three broad areas to prevent such situations from becoming a regular occurrence.
First, they must find ways to stop human trafficking. Various measures have been suggested, such as minimum sentences for traffickers and encouraging citizens to report suspected trafficking. Minimum sentences (or harsher penalties) are unlikely to help. Canada already has laws that allow harsh punishment-- the problem is identifying traffickers. As for reporting suspects, an education program might help Canadians identify potential situations of human-trafficking, but the reality is that one isn't likely to be able to tell a trafficked person apart from anyone else. Rather, Canada must make it easier for refugees to avoid dealing with traffickers.
Second, Canada needs a better system for processing refugees. One possibility is to allow Canadian embassies to process them abroad. This will diminish the desire to try to enter the country illegally by boat. In addition, it will better enable the government to control who is allowed to enter the country by working with the country of origin to verify things like education and criminal records.
Third, and by far the most important, is to reform Canada's immigration system so that those most deserving and in need are allowed in. Canada is one of the top ten countries for accepting immigrants (America is number one), yet there is a growing trend in both countries to restrict immigration because of fears such as lost jobs and security. Refugees of civil wars deserve a better life-- if they seek it in Canada we should be happy to have them. We should also be happy to accept the scores of trained professionals from other countries who come to Canada for a new start. With the proper measures in place, Canada will remain the most open place in the world.
. . The Gauntlet Editorial Board