They Will Keep Coming—There Are Good Reasons To Believe That Many Tamils Are Taking Advantage Of Canada’s Flawed Refugee Process

They will keep coming
There are good reasons to believe that many Tamil migrants are taking advantage of Canada's flawed refugee process

By Martin Collacott
Citizen Special
October 11, 2010 7:59 AM

The arrival of a boatload of Sri Lankan Tamil asylum seekers in August generated a good deal of interest among the media and the general public. While Canadians are generally supportive of accepting a reasonable number of genuine refugees, their reaction to this event was decidedly negative. An Angus Reid poll, for example, found that 63 per cent of respondents felt the ship should have been turned back before it reached Canada, while 83 per cent regarded the migrants as jumping the immigration queue.

There are a number of reasons why many Canadians have serious doubts about whether the people on the Sun Sea are genuine refugees. For one thing, questions can be raised about whether Tamils can make a convincing case that they are being persecuted in Sri Lanka –which is the standard by which one is judged to be in need of permanent resettlement under the 1951 United Nations Convention relating to the Status of Refugees.

While many Tamil civilians were killed, wounded or displaced in the fighting between the Tamil Tigers and Sri Lankan government forces that ended last year, the case cannot be made that Tamils in general in Sri Lanka suffer from persecution. Among other things, they continued to occupy senior positions in government throughout the civil war and still do so. The situation in Sri Lanka, moreover, could not have been as dire for Tamils as asylum seekers allege since large numbers of them have gone back to visit their relatives after filing their claims in Canada. Yet a further factor worth considering is that in Colombo, the largest city in Sri Lanka and located firmly in the Sinhalese south of the country, 30 per cent of the population are Tamils who have been able to continue with their daily lives despite the conflict.

Refugee activists, nevertheless, argue that Tamils in Sri Lanka must be under threat simply because we have accepted close to 90 per cent of their refugee claims over the years. What such figures demonstrate, however, is not that Tamils are being persecuted in Sri Lanka but that something is seriously wrong with our refugee system. In 2003, for example, when Britain accepted only two per cent of claims from Sri Lankan Tamils and Germany only four per cent, Canada approved 76 per cent. In the same year, Canada accepted claims from far more Tamils than did all the other countries in the world combined.

Our attraction to asylum seekers in general is not only that we accept the claims of large numbers that no other country would consider to be genuine refugees but that we provide the most generous system of benefits available anywhere for those making a refugee claim. It is hardly any wonder, therefore, that tens of thousands of individuals make refugee claims in Canada every year and that Sri Lankan Tamils have been so adept at using the system that they have succeeded in establishing in Canada their largest overseas community in the world.

The ease with which people can stay in Canada by arriving here and claiming to be refugees is not only unfair to the thousands of people waiting patiently in line to immigrate to Canada through normal channels, it also does not come with a small price tag for Canadian taxpayers. While it is not easy to make an exact estimate of total costs involved, it almost certainly comes to at least a billion dollars a year — with some estimates as high as two billion.

Just what the government can do to deter further mass arrivals such as that of the Sun Sea remains to be seen. Should most of those on board be successful in using our refugee system to stay here permanently — and this is likely to be the case — we should expect to receive more boats. Since Australia eased up on allowing vessels loaded with asylum seekers to enter its waters in 2007, more than 150 have arrived.

The boats, however, are only one part of a much larger problem. In each of the past two years more than 30,000 persons have entered Canada and made refugee claims. They are allowed to do so even if they are nationals of such democratic states as Britain, the United States, Germany and Sweden — and whose claims no other country but Canada will take seriously.

Straightening out our highly dysfunctional refugee determination system is no easy matter. For one thing it is hamstrung by our adherence to an international convention that is badly out of date in relation to today's realities, such as the multi-billion dollar international people-smuggling industry.

The situation is further complicated by a Supreme Court decision that would not have occurred had a section of the Charter of Rights and Freedom been drafted with greater care.

The government did, in fact, introduce legislation in Parliament earlier this year designed to make modest improvements to the system — but it was largely gutted by refugee advocacy groups and lawyers in concert with members of the opposition hoping to curry favour with immigrant communities whose members have been notably successful in exploiting the refugee system in its current state.

Until voters put pressure on political parties to undertake a complete overhaul of the refugee system, Canadians should be prepared for further arrivals such as the Sun Sea and, at the very least, a continued flow of tens of thousands of asylum seekers coming in by air to avail themselves of our misplaced generosity.


Martin Collacott is a former Canadian ambassador in Asia and the Middle East and a spokesman for the Centre for Immigration Policy Reform. He lives in Vancouver.