Reflections on the Tamil migrants from the child of “queue-jumping” asylum seekers

August 25, 2010

If the 492 Tamil asylum-seekers who recently arrived by boat on BC's shores are "queue-jumpers", then I guess my parents were too. They came as Vietnam War draft dodgers from the US in 1967. Like a couple of the Tamil women just arrived, my mom was pregnant with me. My parents did not seek advance permission from the Canadian government to immigrate. They did not fill out any paperwork before arriving. And they could no more seek permission to leave from their home government than these Tamils could, for what they were doing was, as far as the US was concerned, illegal and would result in my father's arrest.

Of course that's the thing about being an asylum-seeker –– you don't get into a queue. When you've got to go, you've got to go. Hell, my folks didn't even know Montreal (where they landed) was a predominantly French-speaking city.

So they just showed up. The difference, however, was that in those days, they got landed immigrant status in 20 minutes at the airport. Over the course of the Vietnam War, about 100,000 American war resisters came to Canada (many with less formal education than my folks and thus unlikely to score particularly well under today's immigration point-system).

But those aren't the only numeric comparisons I find curious.

Among the common reactions to the arrival of the MV Sun Sea is the proposition that Canada’s alleged lax immigration laws make us a global sucker –– a target for many of the world’s migrants. This is an absurd notion.

World conflicts, environmental disasters, and a global economic system that keeps billions impoverished has resulted in millions upon millions of refugees and displaced people. In Pakistan alone, the current flooding has produced upwards of 14 million internally displaced people. Globally, according to the UN, there are over 43 million "forcibly displaced people," of which about 15 million are refugees.

The vast majority of these globally displaced people are not being absorbed by wealthy countries, but rather internally or by neighbouring poor countries –– the places least able to afford the costs and with the bleakest economic prospects. The number of refugees accepted by Canada has declined in recent years, and last year we accepted fewer than 20,000 — a drop in the global bucket, just over 0.1% of global refugees. Surely, when a few hundred people arrive on our shores, we can afford to treat these people with respect and grant them due process.  

Here's another curious comparison: The real and much more significant Canadian immigration story of recent years (at least measured numerically) isn't about refugees or people arriving by boats. It's about the explosion in temporary foreign workers. The number of temporary foreign workers coming into Canada each year now exceeds 200,000, and now surpasses the number of immigrants.

But the Harper government hasn't been sounding the alarm about this. On the contrary, the federal government has been promoting and facilitating the massive growth in this category of migrants. Why? Because unlike regular immigrants and refugees, these workers are being specifically requested by employers, their indentured status makes them unable to exercise key employment rights and leaves them highly vulnerable to exploitation and unsafe conditions, and they are unable to make the same claims to the social and economic rights that Canadians take for granted.

Immigration is central to the story of Canada –– waves of people who came, mostly to meet a domestic need for labour, and sometimes fleeing harm and conflict. But historically, once people arrived, either as immigrants or refugees, they were upon landing met with a social contract: they could avail themselves of the social and economic rights Canadians enjoyed, and in a few years could be granted the full rights of citizenship.

With the explosion of temporary workers and tightening of regular immigration admissions, the government is effectively saying, "that deal is off –– we're happy to have temporary indentured labour, but don't think you can be a Canadian."     
When my parents arrived in the '60s, a small minority in Canada were keen to label the Vietnam war resisters will all manner of unwelcome labels — much as the Canadian government is currently doing with respect to the Tamil asylum-seekers today, quickly labeling them as terrorists, criminals and queue-jumpers. But for the most part, the Vietnam war resisters were welcomed, and went on to make a valuable contribution to Canadian society. Much the same can be said of the Vietnamese boat people who arrived in the late 1970s. Why can't these better receptions be the norm, rather than the xenophobia that characterizes more recent arrivals?  

And here's what troubles me most. In a world still coming to terms with the reality of climate change, the truth is that the number of global climate migrants and displaced people will soon dwarf the UN numbers sited above. Will this recent ugliness mark each new unexpected arrival, or can we have a rational conversation about what our moral obligations and humanitarian response should be to the global realities ahead?
Seth Klein is Director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives’ BC Office.