Immigrants or Refugees?

A news documentary on A-News discusses the arrival of Tamils on the Canada's West Coast at CFB Esquimalt, 13 August 2010 (courtesy A-News).

The first Tamils to emigrate from Sri Lanka to Canada came in the late 1960s under the category of independent immigrants with skills of use to Canada. However, many more came in 1983 as refugees. Ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka had erupted between the majority Sinhalese and the minority Tamils, the former Buddhists and the latter mainly Hindus, and an estimated 500 Tamils were killed at the hands of the Sri Lankan police and army. In 1983, the Tamils began fighting for an independent state.

In 1986, a boatload of Tamils arrived in Canada that would rouse suspicions of human smuggling and test Canada's generosity towards refugees and its ability to protect its borders.

Local fishermen off the coast of St. John's, NL, rescued 155 Tamil refugees from open lifeboats. Rumours—denied by the refugees—began to circulate that these Tamils had come via West Germany. Reports from Europe were that the previous month, 300 Sri Lankans, having each paid a smuggler several thousand dollars, had left Hamburg by chartered bus to Calais, France, where they had been put on a freighter to Canada. Other reports were that Tamil refugees in Paris were similarly paying for passage to Canada. A public furor ensued, with calls for the Tamils, who had claimed asylum in Canada, to "Go home!" Many saw them as immigrants trying to come in "by the back door."

One year later, a boatload of Sikhs arrived, this time to Nova Scotia. Again, there were public protests, but as before, Canada accepted their claims for asylum.

Following those incidents, various reforms were made to Canada's refugee policy, including in 1989, denying claimants who come here via a third, safe country. By international comparisons, Canada's refugee determination policy is considered exemplary, with on average, half the claims of asylum accepted.

That policy was put to the test in August 2010 when Canadian media reported that a ship—the MV Sun Sea—carrying several hundred Tamils, possibly including Tamil Tigers, was sailing for the British Columbia coast. Public reaction included outrage at “queue-jumpers” circumventing the legal methods for coming to Canada and alarm at the possibility that the group of nearly 500 Tamils, including women and children, could harbour terrorists.

Refugee Claims: Public Opinion

Surveys of public opinion taken at the time showed that the approval rating for refugee claims filed by Sri Lankan nationals fell dramatically, from 81% in July to 75% in August and, as the cases concerning the MV Sun Sea began to be heard in September, to 47%. Although legislation has been established to determine if those claiming refugee status were indeed fleeing life-threatening situations, could it be that public opinion is little changed since the 1980s?

Learn more:
Is Canada's refugee system working?