Cornwall ON – It’s fascinating to watch the Tamil issue unfold, yet sadly the situation is similar to the arrival of the first boatloads of Tamils (1986) and Sikhs (1987). I say this based on first hand experience as back then I was the Chief of Staff to Gerry Weiner, the Minister of Immigration.
The population was outraged, many demanding we immediately throw them out. Our office was flooded with letters (email didn’t exist then) and commentators ramped up the rhetoric against these arrivals. No different really than what we see happening today.
We found out we had little choice, our hands were bound by the existing laws (as they are now) and what was then the relatively new Singh decision by the Supreme Court. Of course the immigration industry got involved to defend these new refugee claimants and the process to screen and review their cases took years. Interestingly enough I recognize the names of some of the same lawyers this time around.
In the case of the first Tamil arrivals, roughly half were sent to Montreal, the rest to Toronto where various aid agencies took over to assist them while they were processed. It’s interesting to note that I was told later by the head of one of these agencies that he was astounded that within a year the Tamil community had paid back every cent of what it had cost his agency to look after the arrivals.
I recall reading and answering every letter that had been sent to the minister. To say that Canadians were angry was an understatement. Most letters expressed one key concern that I expect probably holds true today, namely that these arrivals were jumping the queue ahead of other legitimate immigration applicants. Many letters came from new Canadians who had waited patiently in some cases for years to be accepted by Canada. They had filled out all the forms, passed medicals, passed our security screening and met our standards for acceptance. They saw the Tamils and Sikh arrivals as jumping the queue ahead of the other applicants hoping to make a new life here in Canada.
That is a valid argument if these arrivals turn out to be economic migrants simply looking for a better life and future for their family. It is not though if they are legitimate refugees fleeing persecution. I have seen media reports that some of the current passengers have UN issued refugee documents. In these cases we have moral and legal obligations that are not lightly cast aside.
No matter how much the law has been toughened up and the screening process improved, it can still take years to process a refugee claimant. Any government hoping to address this issue will have to pour millions of dollars into the system and make drastic changes to the appeal process if they hope to be able to remove failed refugee claimants quickly.
We must be able to process and weed out the false refugee claimants from those who have a genuine fear of persecution. That takes time. So far the government has done exactly what it should be doing. It will be interesting to see what changes they will propose and just how they expect to get these changes through a minority parliament.
It’s time to put the hysteria aside and let our officials do their work. They will separate fact from fiction as they look into each case and then we will know if we are faced with a shipload of economic migrants or genuine refugees seeking our protection.