Statement regarding arrival of Tamil refugee claimants by boat on West Coast

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17 August 2010

Following the arrival of close to 500 Tamil refugee claimants on the West Coast aboard the MV Sun Sea, the Canadian Council for Refugees welcomes their processing by the authorities in accordance with Canadian and international law.  Canada is bound by its international obligations not to send any refugees back to persecution.  The story of each claimant must therefore be heard and examined on an individual basis.

Unlike the situation in 1939, when Canada turned away some 900 Jewish refugees on the SS St Louis, Canada has in place laws which provide for the protection of refugees, while also addressing issues of criminality and security.

The arrival of 500 claimants at one time clearly presents practical and logistical challenges, but the numbers are still small in terms of claims made in Canada (less than 2% of the average number of claims made annually in Canada in recent years).  In addition, measures adopted by the Canadian government in 2009 have resulted in a dramatic decline in the numbers of persons able to make refugee claims in Canada. If current trends continue, Canada will receive about a third fewer claimants in 2010 compared to 2009.

The numbers are also very small in the international context.  The UN Refugee Agency reports that there are over 15 million refugees in the world, and Pakistan, Iran and Syria each host over a million.

Human rights abuses in Sri Lanka, the country fled by the claimants, are well-documented and confirmed by the high acceptance rate of Sri Lankan claimants in Canada (91% in 2009).  While the end of the armed conflict has led to some improvements in the security situation, there continue to be significant human rights violations.  In recently published guidelines* on Sri Lankan refugee claims, the UN Refugee Agency notes that groups potentially at risk of persecution in Sri Lanka include journalists, human rights activists, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) individuals and persons suspected of having links with the LTTE (Tamil Tigers).  In addition to protecting refugees fleeing persecution, Canada should redouble its efforts to promote peace and human rights respect in Sri Lanka.

There have been repeated suggestions, not backed by any credible evidence, that some of the passengers on the MV Sun Sea are members of the Tamil Tigers.  Some of the allegations appear to be coming directly or indirectly from the Sri Lankan government, which has a long history of attempting to discredit opponents as “terrorists” and labelling Tamil civilians as Tigers. It is important that Canada – and Canadians – not take sides with the potential persecutor, and that each claim be examined without bias.  Canadian law provides for the identification of individuals who have committed serious human rights violations or who represent a risk to Canadian security. Such persons are ineligible for refugee status and may be removed from Canada.

The Canadian Council for Refugees in no way condones the activities of smugglers who exploit for financial gain the desperation of refugees, including perhaps the passengers of the MV Sun Sea.  Nevertheless, many refugees have no choice but to use irregular means to flee persecution and international law prohibits them being penalized for illegal entry.  Many Canadians would not be alive today if they or their parents had not paid smugglers to help them escape persecution.

Canadians can be proud of the fact that our country provides access to a fair and independent refugee system.  In this way, Canada has over the years saved the lives of thousands of Sri Lankan Tamils fleeing persecution.  Whether they arrive by plane, foot or boat, people seeking refuge from human rights abuses have a right to an individual hearing on the reasons why they fled.

In compliance with international standards, refugee claimants are not generally detained on arrival in Canada.  The same rules should apply to these claimants: they should not be detained beyond the time necessary to establish their identity, unless there are particular reasons in individual cases.  Children should not be detained.

It is extremely regrettable that the Canadian government’s public comments on the boat arrivals have focused on suspicions of associations with terrorism and smuggling, thus encouraging negative public opinion.  All governments have a responsibility to build public support for refugees by affirming the need to respect international obligations and by firmly countering any tendencies towards xenophobic reactions in the population.  The Canadian Council for Refugees looks to the Canadian government to assume its proper leadership role in this regard.

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* UN High Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR Eligibility Guidelines for Assessing the International Protection Needs of Asylum-Seekers from Sri Lanka, 5 July 2010, HRC/EG/SLK/10/03, available at: http://www.unhcr.org/refworld/docid/4c31a5b82.html