By: Rahul Balasundaram
After fleeing persecution and genocide in Sri Lanka, 492 Tamil refugees arrived on the MV Sun Sea in British Columbia in August 2010. Most of the passengers, including children, were detained for nearly a year by the Canadian government. (Photo source: Toronto Star)
Globally, an estimated 82.4 million people are forcibly displaced due to persecution, conflict, violence and human rights violations. Yet most displacement results in internal movement and the Majority World continues to host approximately 86% of the world’s refugees. Despite this, negative political and media discourses prevail when individuals seek protection in Western nations, particularly in the form of harmful representations of refugees as “illegals,” “criminals” and “terrorists.” Although Canada prides itself as being a welcoming country for refugees, it is not immune from criminalizing and xenophobic discourses. When Tamil refugees fleeing persecution and genocide in Sri Lanka arrived on the shores of British Columba in 2009 and 2010, they were met with criminalization and xenophobia by the Canadian government and media.
Tamils in Sri Lanka: A Brief Historical Context
The Tamil population in Sri Lanka has been historically oppressed by various state policies and state-sponsored genocides. During the 26-year armed conflict between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist government was responsible for grave violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law. These violations included the shelling of civilians and hospitals, sexual violence, torture, enforced disappearances and the killing of up to 140,000 Tamil civilians during the final stages of the armed conflict in May 2009. Afterwards, violence, detention and government reprisals against Tamils continued, as identified in UNHCR’s list of at-risk people in Sri Lanka. Regrettably, this context of the persecution and genocide of Tamils in Sri Lanka was largely absent from Canadian government and media discourses in 2009 and 2010.
Canadian Government and Media Responses to Tamil Refugees in 2009 and 2010
In October 2009, Canadian officials detained all 76 Tamil men aboard the MV Ocean Lady for months. Jason Kenney, Minister of Immigration and Citizenship for the Conservative government in power, stated that Canada did not want a “two-tier immigration system” in which individuals would come through the “back door.” The notion of a “two-tier immigration system” framed the actions of Tamil refugees as unfair to those who waited patiently for their applications to be processed overseas, while the usage of the term “back door” portrayed Tamil refugees as individuals who were looking for an easier way to enter Canada. Therefore, “sponsored” refugee applicants processed overseas are portrayed as “good” or “patient” refugees while “claimants” seeking asylum at the Canadian border—who are exercising their agency in doing so—are defined as “illegitimate.” The Minister’s spokesperson stated that they would not “allow Canada to become a place of refuge for terrorists, thugs, snakeheads and other violent foreign criminals.” Similarly, the media focused on the security/risk discourse, labelled Tamil refugees as criminals and terrorists, and used sensationalist headlines to spark public anxiety.
Ten months later, when the MV Sun Sea arrived in August 2010 with 492 Tamil refugees, Canadian government officials once again failed to focus on their perilous journey, during which one passenger died. Instead, most adult passengers were detained for nearly a year, including children who accompanied their mothers in detention. The Minister of Public Safety stated that “jumping the immigration queue is fundamentally unfair to those who follow the rules and wait their turn to come to Canada” and that “Canada is a welcoming nation but… will not tolerate the abuse of our immigration system.” However, the characterization of Tamil refugees as “queue jumpers” is misleading because not only are immigration and refugee processes entirely separate, there is no queue in which legal refugees are waiting to arrive. Many newspapers portrayed the Tamils as either “bogus” refugees, “criminals” and “terrorists,” such as through the following Toronto Star headline: “Is suspected migrant ship carrying terrorists or refugees?” Like the government, the media automatically portrayed a picture of criminality instead of providing context of the armed conflict in Sri Lanka and the journey of the Tamil refugees.
Expanding Securitization: The Shift in Migration Discourse and Policy
Refugee arrivals in Canada have not always been accompanied by such hostility, xenophobia and racism. When 155 Tamil refugees reached the coast of Newfoundland in 1986, all passengers were provided with one-year permits that allowed them to live and work in Canada, and Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney stated that his “government will do anything but allow refugees in lifeboats to be turned aimlessly around in the ocean and turned away from our shores.” Most media outlets described the refugee claims as legitimate and praised the Canadian government’s actions as “welcoming,” “humanitarian and generous” and “commendable,” and denounced negative and securitizing discourse as “small-minded and ignorant” and “racist backlash.”
This shift in discourse and policy can be explained by the expanding securitization of migration as states such as Canada tighten their borders through strict visa requirements and third country agreements, in which individuals are forced to seek asylum in the first country of entry, even if these countries are not safe for refugees. Yet it is when migration policies become restrictive that individuals resort to dangerous and extralegal options of accessing protection, such as human smuggling, to flee from conflict, violence and human rights abuses. Instead of portraying this cruel reality for refugees, the discourse in 2009 and 2010 focused on borders, state security and the “betrayal” of the immigration system. This discourse on “abusing” Canadian “generosity” ultimately serves as a rationale for invoking increasingly exclusionary migration policies.
Ultimately, the securitization of migration positions refugees first as criminals and only second as possibly legal seekers of refuge. The media perpetuates dominant constructions of “us” and “them,” such as during the media coverage of the European “migration crisis” in 2015. Discourse, however, translates into dangerous laws and policies, as evident in what followed the arrivals in 2009 and 2010. Amendments to Canada’s immigration legislation deemed arrivals by sea as “irregular” and resulted in automatic detention, lack of review or release for a year, a five-year ban on permanent residence applications, bar on family reunification and deportation. This process of criminalizing refugees and their legal right to seek protection has exceptionally harmful consequences, including: the imprisonment of traumatized refugees; the detention of children or their separation from parents; and forceful returns to countries where they face serious persecution, such as the deportation of a Tamil man who was tortured by Sri Lankan authorities upon return.
The arrival of Tamil refugees in 2009 and 2010 represented only one percent of all refugee claims made in Canada in those two years and most Tamil refugees received positive claims, yet there was a disproportionate amount of antagonizing political and media discourse. While the Canadian government has boasted about its resettlement numbers in recent years, this securitized approach to migration has continued through exclusionary asylum policies under current Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. During the deadly COVID-19 pandemic, Canada closed the border for those seeking refugee protection, deported the highest number of individuals since 2015, and continues to uphold its mandatory and indefinite detention policy towards refugees.
While political and media actors continue to evoke fear during the arrival of refugees, it is worth reiterating that on average, less than ten percent of the total number of new arrivals are refugees as Canada disproportionately privileges economic self-interest over humanitarian concern. At the same time, the international refugee system is fundamentally skewed to protect the interests of Western nations, the same actors that continue to displace Black and brown people globally through military interventions, the promotion of neoliberal economic policies, and contributions towards the catastrophic climate crisis and its resulting displacement. Ultimately, Canada should overturn its criminalizing and securitizing discourse, policies and practices that force refugees to navigate a system that is inherently built against their safety, dignity and humanity.
*The views expressed in publications are those of the authors