We should welcome the New Boat People

Let the rule of law and our Canadian compassion reign when we consider the plight of the 123 new arrivals.

Canada, as described in the preamble of our Constitution, is a country “founded upon principles that recognize the supremacy of God and the rule of law.” We are a society that espouses the social and legal values of, among others, compassion, democracy, equity, due process and fairness.

But judging from the reaction to the recent arrival of the 123 Chinese boat people off Vancouver Island, many Canadians seem to want the rule of law suspended and compassion thrown out of the window. They want these refugee claimants kicked out of Canada forthwith.

In making such demands, I wonder if these people know that in 1997 there were 22,584 refugee claimants whose cases were heard by Immigration Canada. That works out to be on average of about 62 claimants a day. In other words, these recent arrivals accounted for only about two days’ worth of refugee claimants. Each and every one of the 22,584 refugee claimants was accorded due process under the current immigration law.

So why do people want to treat so harshly and so differently these 123 poor souls who risked their lives crossing the Pacific Ocean in a dilapidated vessel to seek a better life?

A jaded community activist may argue that the outcries were simply a reflection of Canada’s racist history towards Asians. People who subscribe to this theory can point to the following historical patterns.

About 100 years ago, while Chinese immigrants had to pay a head tax to come to Canada, people from certain European countries were given land in the Prairies to settle. In 1914, while European immigrants landed by the boatload in Eastern Canada, Sikhs from India were turned back from Vancouver.

During the Second World War, while Canadians of Japanese descent were interned in prison camps, the Canadian born descendants of Axis countries that like Japan were at war with Canada were never treated as enemies of the state.

Even now, while the refugee claimants from China were subjected to a barrage of negative letters to newspaper editors, not a word of concern was raised by the public about the Cubans who defected at the Pan-American Games.

Not too many people, fortunately, subscribe to the above view. Not when you consider the people who wrote negative letters to newspapers or made angry calls to call-in shows at the Canadian-Chinese Radio station included Canadians of Chinese heritage. Not when we consider that Canadians opened our doors and wallets and welcomed tens of thousands of Vietnamese refugees in the early 1980s.

Then why are so many Canadians so upset? “They jumped the queue,” new Canadians cried. “They abused our generosity,” established Canadians shouted.

“We are too soft on bogus refugees,” a former Canadian ambassador wrote. “If the present law is not reformed, we should reconcile ourselves to an increasing flow and eventually a torrent of criminally organized illegal migrants.”

But what are the facts? According to Citizenship and Immigration Canada, between January 1995 and September 1998, only 478 out of a total of 97,640 accepted refugees came from China, a country from which “a torrent of criminally organized illegal migrants” is supposedly expected to come.

Our generous treatment of refugee claimants has been a fact since 1969, when Canada signed the United Nation’s convention and protocol relating to the status of refugees. In so doing, Canada is committed to not returning people deemed to be fleeing persecution.

Are those who land in Canada and claim refugee status jumping the queue? Are they abusing our generosity?

In 1997, the last year such sta­tistics are available, 44 per cent of refugees were landed in Canada. The rest were either privately sponsored (11 per cent), dependents abroad (13 per cent) or government assisted (32 per cent).

One might say those refugees who landed in Canada did jump the queue. But refugees, by def­inition, are desperate people and desperate people do desperate things.

Making the determination of whether inland refugee claimants meet the criteria is the responsibility of the Immigration and Refugee Board.

There seems to be broad general consensus that the current determination system takes too long and is not effective. And we are right to be upset with the criminals who profit from the trafficking of refugees.

The present government, to its credit, has recognized this and proposed changes to improve the system. Some of the changes were outlined in the discussion paper released last year and one source says a new immigration act is scheduled to be introduced in the next parliamentary session.

In the meantime, what we need are political leaders who have the courage to remind us of our proud history as a caring and compassionate country and of our international obligations. We need lawmakers who understand the due process of law and do not pander to a lynch mob mentality by calling for the immediate return of the refugee Claimants.

The strength of our nation lies in our ability to make difficult policy choices in a rational, well informed and well thought-out manner. Most importantly, we need political leaders who can take us to the moral high ground of this difficult issue and make us feel good as Canadians.

© (This article was first published in the Vancouver Sun on Saturday, August 7, 1999)

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