Earlier this year the UN released a striking statistic:
For the first time since World War II over 50 million people are now living as refugees around the world.
As a result rich nations face higher flows of refugee claimants causing many to opt for ever stricter border controls.
But those who are fleeing war and persecution are adopting new tactics, too. Increasingly they are opting to place themselves into the hands of networks of people smugglers who, for a fee, promise to take them to their destination.
This episode of People & Power follows the arrival of two boats with Tamil refugees in Canada and asks whether the tough application of Canada's immigration laws, resulting in many potential deportations, is justified.
By Juliana Ruhfus
In August 2010 a ship called the MV Sun Sea reached Canada carrying nearly 500 Sri Lankan Tamils - a journey organised by people smugglers. After having spent 52 days out on sea, hidden deep in the belly of the cargo vessel, the Tamils had finally reached their destination.
It wasn't the first ship with Tamil asylum seekers to have arrived into Canadian waters. Ten months earlier, the MV Ocean Lady, had brought 76 Tamil passengers. All of them said they were fleeing their homeland at the end of Sri Lanka's brutal civil war after the defeat of the Tamil Tigers (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam or LTTE) by government forces.
Is Canada closing its borders not just to Tamils but to refugees in need of protection?
The landing of the two ships prompted a tough response from the Canadian government. The so-called "boat arrivals" were arrested and put into prison before starting a screening process to determine who could claim refugee status in Canada. Vic Toews, minister of public safety at the time, repeatedly warned of the dangers posed by 'criminals and terrorists' entering Canada by sea and abusing its refugee system.
On the other side were refugee advocates who condemned the negative portrayal of the potential refugees. Critics like Peter Showler, director of the refugee forum spoke of a "ludicrous contrast between the extreme reaction and the actuality of the number of claimants coming in" pointing out that in 2010, more refugee claimants from Sri Lanka entered Canada through Vancouver airport than the ones who entered by boat.
A very public debate unfolded in Canada. It is a debate that goes right into the heart of the country's identity as a nation of immigrants: Is Canada closing its borders not just to Tamils but to refugees in need of protection?
Much of the current discourse surrounding the arrival of the two ships has its roots in the history of the Tamil struggle for independence. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or LTTE, were fighting to liberate the Tamil north from the discrimination and oppression by the Sinhalese Sri Lankan government. Like many armed movements around the world the LTTE resorted to weapons smuggling and other illegal acts to continue fighting. They also had a specialised navy force, the so-called Sea Tigers, renowned for suicide missions.
The war effort was funded, in large parts, by donations from the diaspora Tamil community who had started fleeing Sri Lanka at the onset of the war in the 1980's. Amidst allegations that some of the money was extracted by extortion and blackmail, western countries banned the LTTE as a terrorist organisation in 2006, making membership in the Tigers illegal.
By the time the Ocean Lady and Sun Sea reached Canada, Sri Lanka's government, the LTTE's old adversary, had a clear message, which was that the Ocean Lady had a track record of smuggling weapons for the Tamil Tigers. It warned that not only were the shipments organised by high ranking Tiger leaders and their associates, but also that prominent LTTE cadres were on board who were fleeing northern Sri Lanka after their defeat to rebuild the organisation from the safety of the West.
Punish the smugglers but not the refugees
None of this, say the critics, justifies the reaction of the Canadian government, which runs the danger of criminalising all refugee claimants without proper investigations. In the wake of the arrival of the two ships, new laws were passed allowing for the designation of groups of two or more people as irregular arrivals and causing a new process to kick in that includes a minimum of a one-year detention, even for children. Accepted refugees now have to wait for up to five years before bringing their families into Canada and the period in which a refugee claimant can make his/her claim has been cut from 90 to 60 days, which refugee lawyers say is hardly enough to obtain the necessary documentation.
As for the nearly 600 Tamils who arrived on the two ships, they are facing a tougher interpretation of existing laws which are increasingly used to prevent refugee claimants from getting admissibility hearings in which they would have the opportunity to argue that they are fleeing persecution.
When is a war no longer a war?
Not just in Canada, but in refugee receiving nations around the world government experts, refugee lawyers and human rights groups are arguing about the risk Tamils face on their return. The Tamils themselves say that the very fact that they tried to flee Sri Lanka will cause the government to see them as LTTE suspects and expose them to the risk of arrest and torture. To date Canada has returned two of the 'boat arrivals', one was imprisoned and the other has disappeared. Other western countries are grappling with the same problem. Britain has deported Sri Lankan nationals in spite of huge criticism from human rights groups, as have Norway and Australia, and Switzerland is about to resume forced returns too.
Which leads to what may well be the trickiest issue of all: who determines that a conflict is really over and how is it concluded that those who have lived through it are now safe from persecution thereby allowing for refugee claims to be rejected by potential host nations?
Again, the case of Sri Lanka has been making headlines around the world when earlier this year Yasmin Sooka, South African human rights lawyer published a high-profile report on Sri Lanka. In it she credibly demonstrated that "abduction, arbitrary detention, torture, rape and sexual violence have increased in the postwar period" and that Tamils remain at the receiving end of violence from government security forces.
In the face of larger numbers of refugee claimants, governments around the world are looking for ways to stop the flow of refugees; as long as there is conflict and abject poverty wealthy nations will remain a magnet. Volker Turk, UNHCR, director division of international protection, explains that increasing border restrictions or closing of borders does also give rise to a flourishing of a smuggling and trafficking market. "What we really need in order to resolve the root causes of displacement and conflict is political leadership. We require urgent political solutions to the many conflicts around the world today."
It will by no means be easy, but in the end it can only be peace and prosperity that can curb the flow of refugees.
People & Power can be seen each week at the following times GMT: Wednesday: 2230; Thursday: 0930; Friday: 0330; Saturday: 1630; Sunday: 2230; Monday: 0930.
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