October 2010

“JAILS AWAIT REFUGEES” was just one of many sensational and dramatic headlines to grace Canadian newspapers in the past year regarding Tamil asylum seekers from Sri Lanka.

Last October, 76 asylum seekers that had arrived on Canada’s western shore were detained for three months on suspicion of terrorism before finally being released, and before the process of their refugee claim was initiated.

This past August, another boat arrived with 492 asylum seekers, and they are still being detained.

The Tamil minority in Sri Lanka are currently facing violence, persecution and receiving no international aid.

Canada’s actions regarding these refugees and the escalated violence in January of last year (which saw many protests across Toronto, though poorly received by the Canadian government) are being heavily debated and critiqued.

Last month, York University’s Centre for Refugee Studies hosted an informative discussion panel on these recent events.

Present were Sherry Aiken of the Faculty of Law at Queen’s University, Craig Scott, of Osgoode Hall Law School at York University, Jennifer Hyndman of the Cen- tre for Refugee Studies in the Social Science Department at York, and Kubes Navarantnam of the Canadian Tamil Congress.

Susan McGrath, Director of York University’s Centre for Refugee Studies, moderated the comprehensive panel.

Topics covered the historical, geographical and political situation of Sri Lanka, the dangerous route of asylum seekers coming to Canada and their reception by the Canadian government and Canadian media.

When discussing the situation of Tamil refugees, one must consider the political complexity that governs their actions.

First, as Navarantnam succinctly explained, “any Muslim, Sinhalese, or Tamil person [in Sri Lanka] op- posing the government is in fear for their life.”

As we saw last January, the Sri Lankan government’s attempts to annihilate the Tamil Tigers, an organization fighting for an independent Tamil state, resulted in a shameful number of civilian casualties.

Though the Tigers, also known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), have been declared a terrorist organization by the Canadian government, and are obviously enemies of the state in Sri Lanka, there exists scattered support for them among Tamil people in Sri Lanka and abroad.

“I’ve had issues with the methods,” says Mera Sivane- san, Law student at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. “[But] the Tigers provided infrastructure. They had hospitals set up, courts…schools, a credit union.”

“All of that was wiped out during the fighting last year,” continues Sivanesan, “hundreds of thousands of people were herded into camps and now when they’re told to go back home they have nothing to go back home to. This has also been compounded by an active campaign of colonization of formerly Tamil areas with Sinhalese settlements.”

Once the decision is made to seek asylum abroad, however, the journey ahead is by no means an easy or safe one.

Jennifer Hyndman illustrated this point by quoting an Edmonton Journal headline that described the refugee’s journey, “through hell or high water.” She also mentioned that boats used by refugees are those previously deemed not seaworthy, and headed to the boat equivalent of the junk- yard.

Hyndman’s presentation, focusing on the media mania that ensued following the arrival the asylum seekers, illuminated one of the central issues, that the “spectre of boatloads of refugees seems to stir up hysteria.”

This may be because as a part of the process of confirm- ing the refugee status of the Tamil asylum exiles, they must also be cleared of their almost automatic status as terrorists.

Accused of being involved with the LTTE, these émi- grés, are detained first, perhaps welcomed later.

Even after the brutal assault on LTTE institutions last winter, the Sri Lankan government “has been repeatedly say- ing they are regrouping,” explained Navarantnam. Though there is “no evidence of other violent mobilizing” on the part of the Tigers.

“The Tigers have demised but the fight for Tamil independence has not,” he says.

Consequently, anyone coming out of Sri Lanka is guilty until proven innocent. But, Mayoori Malankov, graduate student at York University and attendee to the panel, brings up a valid question: “How would we even know if they are terrorists?”

Considering they have spent such a short amount of time in Canada and that virtually no information is coming out of Sri Lanka, it is viable to question the process by which the Canadian government determines who is terrorist and who is not.

Despite Canada’s international reputation for being open and accepting, it is obvious that the government’s political ties to Sri Lanka and the Western ‘War on Terrorism’ have affected their welcome of these asylum seekers.

In this case, it appears that while the Canadian government loses respect, Tamil refugees are just plain losing out.

as published in the Ryerson Free Press, October 2010