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Media Statement: Legal Rights of Tamil Migrants Under Threat

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Legal Rights of Tamil Migrants Under Threat
Parliament seeks to further restrict rights of refugees in Canada

TORONTO - Following the arrival of 492 Sri Lankan Tamil asylum seekers off the coast of Vancouver nearly one month ago, the Conservative government has announced plans to “toughen” laws and ram through legislation aimed at stopping migration in an effort to “protect” the Canadian public from human trafficking. The proposed changes deny asylum seekers fundamental procedural rights enshrined by the Charter, and violate Canada’s obligations under international law.

Nearly three decades of fighting between the Government of Sri Lanka (GOSL) and Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) officially “ended” in May 2009. Thousands of Sri Lankan Tamil families remain detained in overcrowded government run camps, with poor and irregular access to water and medical care, and where their rights of movement are severely restricted.

These Tamil asylum seekers are refugees. They face serious persecution by their state and non-state actors. Yet, the Harper government and Ministers Jason Kenney and Vic Toews have characterized the Tamil arrivals as “queue jumpers” by arriving in Canada by boat to claim asylum. In line with this agenda, the Tamil passengers of the MV Sun Sea remain detained by the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) at the Burnaby Detention Center in Vancouver, amidst a climate of growing anti-refugee hysteria and racist discourse propagated by the Conservative government and the media.

In reality, these 492 Tamils represent approximately 0.1 percent of refugee claims made in Canada each year. One quarter of all claims are made from within Canada. Once on Canadian soil, asylum seekers have a right to make a refugee claim. There is no queue to be jumped. Singling out and vilifying these Tamil claimants because of their means of transportation to Canada smacks of a historically discriminatory attitude Canada has taken towards foreigners arriving by boat.

Furthermore, the 1986 Supreme Court case, Singh v. Canada, extended the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms asylum seekers, guaranteeing them the right to life, liberty and security of the person, and the right to have their refugee claims heard orally in front of a fair and impartial tribunal. The Harper government’s legislative proposals seek to oust the Charter by enshrining their anti-refugee agenda into Canadian law.

The last few years have seen a rapidly increasing use of security grounds as a justification for the arrest and detention of people of colour in Canada. The asylum seekers on the MV Sun Sea have been painted as terrorists and security threats, simply by virtue of their being Tamil. The ease with which these accusations have been accepted by the general public and touted by the Canadian government without any evidentiary basis is alarming. This is reflective of a disturbing trend which characterizes people of colour as dangerous and threatening, and is aimed at furthering the largely anti-immigrant and refugee policy goals of the Harper government.

We ask the Canadian public to focus on the skills and resources each of the 492 migrants possess. A large part of the current drain on Canadian resources stems from the enormous cost of keeping the Tamils within the prison system, rather than enabling them to flourish as productive members of society. The asylum seekers must be released immediately and given access to free legal counsel for speedy detention reviews and the remainder of the refugee determination process. The passengers on the MV Sun Sea have a right to a fair hearing before tribunals that are free of media and political pressure, and that is in line with Canada’s international and domestic legal obligations.

The Immigration Legal Committee stands in solidarity with Tamil migrants in detention. We encourage our allies to act in solidarity with No One Is Illegal Vancouver outside the Burnaby Detention Center on Saturday September 11th, 2010. The treatment of our Tamil allies will be closely monitored by the legal community and migrant justice organizations in the months to come.

Media Contacts:

Immigration Legal Committee:
The Immigration Legal Committee (ILC) is an autonomous working group of the Law Union of Ontario and is a subcommittee of No One is Illegal – Toronto, a migrant justice organization. The ILC is composed of law students, legal workers and lawyers seeking to provide support to campaigns for immigrant justice and information and resources to organizations serving immigrant communities in Toronto.

Macdonald Scott: 416-999-6885
Swathi Sekhar: 416-456-4075