Tamil migrants: terrorists or refugees?
Published Friday, August 13, 2010 5:23PM PDT Last Updated Friday, May 18, 2012 11:25PM PDT
A terrorism expert says Canada will become known as a safe haven for criminals and terrorists unless the government takes a strong stance dealing with a ship carrying 490 migrants that arrived in B.C. Friday morning.
Canada's Public Safety Minister, Vic Toews, said the vessel is part of a human smuggling enterprise carrying terrorists and human traffickers and that other ships could set sail after gauging the country's reaction.
Peter St. John, a terrorism expert from the University of Manitoba, said it's possible members of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a banned terrorist organization, are on board, and it's key for Canadian Border Services Agency officials to weed them out immediately to send a strong message.
"This ship has three sets of people on it. It has possible Tamil Tigers, it has Tamils who sympathize with the cause and then there are refugees who would rather be anywhere in the world where they can be at peace. And the three are very hard to disentangle," St. John said.
St. John said determining the difference between "terrorist, sympathizer and honest refugee" will be very difficult, and border officials will likely get it wrong in many cases.
"It's going to cost a lot of money and it's going to make a lot of Canadians upset," he said.
St. John says Canada has an international reputation of being a "soft touch" when it comes to refugees, something that will likely encourage more human smuggling operations to target the country in the future.
"If you just arrive here there are legal ways to hang on and hang on and hang on and then you can't be kicked out of the country. So we have a reputation as being a pushover and an easy place to jump the queue as a refugee," he said.
"The government is looking weak. If we don't send a strong message they'll send more ships."
Last October, a ship carrying 76 Sri Lankan migrants arrived on B.C.'s shores. Twenty-five were detained before even being given a chance to present any evidence supporting their refugee claim.
All of those on board the Ocean Lady claimed refugee status.
Immigration lawyer and policy analyst Richard Kurland told CTV News Channel there's a high likelihood the majority of those on board the MV Sun Sea will engage the Canadian refugee system and ask for protection.
"They fear persecution," he said. "The difficulty is how you identify the safety risk. The idea is separate wheat from chaff and to separate the security risks."
St. John said while Canadians have a responsibility to care about migrants and be compassionate, it's extremely important to set ground rules about the way Canada allows people into the country.
"If enough ships and people come in airplanes and jump the queue we're not going to be seen as a compassionate country but a walkover or a pushover," he said.
"The government has to send a message and the refugee system has got to get better intelligence and know more about the people who are coming here."
Judging before knowing
The Canadian Tamil Congress, which is providing short term legal and monetary assistance to the passengers, is urging the government to give the migrants the benefit of due process through the immigration system.
"There are hundreds of refugees who show up at various ports of entry into Canada, whether it may be by land or air. A boatload of Tamil migrants coming by sea should not be treated any differently," Gary Anandasangaree said.
"Let's hear them, and give them the benefit of due process."
Immigration lawyer Barbara Jackman said labeling the migrants as Tamil Tigers before knowing their situation is irresponsible and fosters anger among Canadians.
"It twists reality. There is no reason to believe that these Tamils are anything other than victims of persecution in Sri Lanka, as the thousands of Tamils who arrived before them were," Jackman said.
"People do not choose to be born in a country which persecutes them. But they can choose a safe haven, because countries like Canada have opened their borders and promised to protect refugees who make it to our shores."
To that end, Richard Kurland agrees, saying the success of the country's immigration and refugee system depends on striking a balance between safety and fairness.
"You do not close the doors on legitimate refugees," Kurland said.
"That's not in our international obligations and that's not Canadian values. But you do promote law and order and prevent human smuggling."