Boat People 2010

Canada really has no idea how many illegal immigrants are living in this country. The estimates range from 35,000 to 120,000 – but those are just guesses. We have no reliable refugee screening process.  Deportation orders are routinely ignored and little attempt is made to enforce them. We just seem to lose track of them.

So it’s kind of strange to me that people are so up in arms about the 490 Sri Lankan migrants (including 90 women and 45 children) who arrived by boat on the Pacific coast last week. Canadian Border Services and Immigration Canada had things well in hand since they’ve been watching the boat, the MV Sun Sea, make its ever-so-slow,  three-month journey to Canada.

Very considerate of them to give us plenty of time to get ourselves organized, because lord knows  our government  moves like Keystone Kops on Demerol.  

But we had lots of time, so made sure the ship was escorted to shore; we made sure all the migrants had health checks, security and criminal records checks and managed to get all their fingerprints and photos taken.

And, we arranged to make contact with Canadians who thought they might have family members on board the MV Sun Sea. Those 135 people identified will presumably be turned over to their Canadian family members at some point. The rest are being held in detention centres until we figure out exactly what’s going on with them and what to do with them.

Still, online discussions and letters to newspapers show an almost consistent outrage from Canadians. There are reported rumours that some of these refugees might be terrorists or human traffickers. Canadians seem to want them all sent back home.

We begrudge them the medical attention they’re getting, while we have to wait months to get an appointment to see our GPs. We begrudge them the “taxpayer dollars” it’s taking to process, house and feed the migrants. We think these refugees are all going to end up on welfare or end up killing us in our sleep.

Back in 1939, the MS St. Louis arrived in Halifax carrying 907 German Jews trying to escape persecution and genocide by the Nazis. Roosevelt’s government in the US hadn’t even bothered to reply to the ship captain’s request to dock, so they came north. A group of Canadian businessmen and academics pleaded with Prime Minister Mackenzie King to grant these 907 people asylum.

“Not our problem,” said King and sent the boat back to Europe where most of the passengers of the MS St. Louis ended up in gas chambers.

That wasn’t the first time Canada sent refugees back to their country to be killed. But it did prompt the United Nations to oblige us not to send people to their home country if they face persecution there. 

We are also obliged, under international law, to not take any action until a refugee ship actually lands on our shores. So, we can’t just swim out and tell them to go home. That’s out of our jurisdictin.

Morally and ethically, we also can’t just not allow them to dock in case they need food, water or medical attention. We can’t let human beings die in a boat a few miles from our shores.

And, if we hesitate to allow them to dock, some boats in the past have been deliberately scuttled so that we were forced to go and rescue the passengers and bring them to shore anyway.

So, we really had no choice but to accept them. But what now?

Our immigration and refugee system is seriously flawed and needs a lot of work. Nobody can argue with that. But what’s the big deal about this particular boatload of people? We get way more illegals arriving by plane and land all the time than these few surviving a lengthy, crazy-assed ocean voyage.

Canada took in some 137,000 Vietnamese, Chinese, Lao and Kampuchean boat people in the late 1970s and early 1980s. That’s proven to have been a win-win situation for everyone involved. The refugees assimilated into society quickly, got jobs, started businesses and enriched our society enormously.

There is no reason to think these Sri Lankan migrants won’t be equally successful. The rumours about terrorists and human trafficking aren’t facts, and may very well just be misinformation disseminated by the people they’re trying to escape back home.  That’s a well-known tactic.

And, if  the rumours do turn out to be true, our screening process has some chance of figuring that out and maybe not letting them run away and disappear. Surely?

Are we really more afraid of people coming to Canada from other countries or of our government not being able to handle them properly? 

From what I’ve seen, and from the statistics we have, immigrants and refugees work hard and contribute significantly to the economy, culture and social fabric.  

Sure, like with anything, there are always going to be bad apples —  and it would be really nice if we had some effective processes in place to deal with them —  but that’s no reason to slam the doors shut on all migrants. Is it?