Let’s change our views. Let’s be more informed.

By Athena Narsingh, J.D. Candidate, University of Ottawa Faculty of Law.

Following the high-profile arrival of migrant-carrying ships in 2009 and 2010, the Canadian media perpetuated Sri Lankan stereotypes that remain prominent today. The Canadian government accused some of the 492 Sri Lankan nationals seeking refuge aboard the MV Sun Sea of having ties with the Tamil Tigers terrorist organization. Several individuals were ultimately deported or charged with human smuggling, while many others had their refugee claims rejected. By 2012, Ottawa had only accepted 4 refugee claims from the ship.

Canadian media coverage of the 2009 associated the migrants with the Tamil Tigers, while then-Minister of Public Safety Vic Toews described refugee claimants as “suspected human smugglers and terrorists.” During the 2010 incident, Toews stated that  the vessel was setup in a way suggesting “a broader criminal enterprise involved, including the Tamil Tigers.” A CBC article, described the actions of the CBSA to screen, fingerprint and document migrants, while suggesting refugee claimants were likely associated with the Tamil Tigers in 2010 presented the refugee claimants as most likely associated with the Tamil Tigers. The effect was to suggest these refugees were criminally culpable of association with terrorists before any formal trial had taken place, reinforcing a harmful stereotype about the Tamil people.

I contend that this negative media portrayal was an important factor that led to Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada to discount the violent reality facing migrants in Sri Lanka.  This is all the more trouble as some individuals faced persecution after being deported back to Sri Lanka. In 2011, a deported claimant identified as B016 was was beaten with plastic pipes and deprived of food. Another, identified as B005, disappeared shortly after being deported in 2012. This despite the conclusion of a Sri Lankan judge that this individual was neither a criminal nor a Tamil Tiger associate.

Due to the media’s portrayal of the Sri Lankan refugee claimants as terrorists, people of Sri Lankan descent are now perceived as a terrorist threat.  The terrorist perception is clearly prominent in the more stringent analysis for Sri Lankan refugee cases. Toews held a press conference for Canadians, “reassuring” them that the refugees, including elderly and children are all associated with the Tamil Tigers in a human smuggling conspiracy.  Canadians have little autonomy for thought when the Minister of Public  Safety and the media are bombarding the Canadian public with idea of Sri Lankan terrorists. Sri Lankan immigrants, citizens and foreign nationals are now considered a national security threat because the media has created and perpetuated this image and Toews has endorsed the image.

The portrayal of Sri Lankan refugee claimants as national security threats has had disastrous consequences for deported migrants, and harms the Sri Lankan community in Canada. I hope this entry will provoke further interest and study of into the activities of the Immigration and Refugee Board, the fate of successful and unsuccessful Sri Lankan claimants, and the contributions of Sri Lankan people to Canadian society.

“Let us not fix the blame. Let us fix the problem.” – Anonymous

Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License Photo by Brett Davies via Flickr.

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