In 2009, 76 Tamils were found aboard the Ocean Lady, and this week another boat has docked containing approximately 500 Tamils, who have been at sea in cramped conditions since May. Some of the refugees were dehydrated upon arriving, but Canadian officials have found no evidence of weapons or communicable disease on board.

The Tamil people are an ethnic group from Sri Lanka who speak the Tamil language. The volatile war between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers, a terrorist group, has driven almost a million Tamils from their homes to either safer areas in the country or other countries, namely Canada, which has the highest population of displaced Tamils. India also has a large share, but the Tamils there live largely in special refugee camps. The majority of Canada’s over 200,000 Tamil population reside in Toronto.

On what is now referred to as “Black July”, July 23, 1983, attacks against the Tamils killed as many as 3,000 people and destroyed tens of thousands of homes. Since then, Tamils have faced certain death, including the attempted genocide of their race, being killed for not siding with the terrorist forces, children being used for slave labour or cannon fodder and murdering Tamil females of childbearing age. Tamils being associated with the terrorist group, the Tamil Tigers, is sometimes unavoidable under penalty of death.

Critics have said that the Tamils have been able to afford $50,000 a head to be able to get on the ship and head to Canada, which could raise suspicion. However, the Tamils on the ship have likely sold everything they’ve owned, including land that has been in their possession for generations.

With all of the publicity the ship garnered, it is likely the Tamils would have been killed on return to Sri Lanka if the ship had been sent back. A similar incident happened when Canada turned away a Japanese ship carrying Punjab migrants in 1914, where at least 19 were shot upon returning home. In 1939, Canada also turned around a ship carrying almost 1000 Jewish asylum seekers, 200 of which were killed by Nazis upon returning back to Europe.

Canada is a big country, with plenty of wealth and freedom to go around. While it can be frustrating to those who are waiting to immigrate to Canada, the Tamils, in practical terms, cannot apply for refugee status from their own country, nor a nearby “safe country”. The majority want a better life or a life at all, and deserve a shot at what Canada has to offer.

Canada has a tradition of an open door policy to those feeling persecution since WWII. Despite the new proposed refugee reforms that will make it more difficult for refugee claims to get processed in Canada, we still are the democratic country of last resort to many in need.

About Michael Niren

Michael is a graduate of Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto. He is a member of the Law Society of Upper Canada, the Canadian Bar Association’s Citizenship and Immigration Section and the Associate Member of the American Bar Association. Read more

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