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When the Water is Safer: Refuge in a Time of Supremacy

By C. Chandrawala

கப்பல் (kappal - ship)

Tamils flee by sea

Arrive, detain, separate

Waiting in limbo

Editor’s Note:

"Refuge”’s a hard thing for many of us to understand, because the concept of seeking refuge, of seeking safety, is foreign to so many. Or is it? Think of the last time you felt like you didn’t belong, like you were unwanted, like you didn’t have a place where you felt safe – this is what it means to seek refuge – quite simply, to seek refuge is to seek a place which you can call home, a place where you can feel safe.

Too often, refugees are over-politicized; they become an “issue” rather than a mother, a father, a child. And not just any father, mother, and child, but a father who has fled a labor camp, a mother who gave birth in a field because all the hospitals were closed, or a child who couldn’t go to school because sadly, backpacks don’t protect us from bullets.

The following article helps us understand what happens when we stop recognizing humanity within refugees. Whether they arrive in thousands or hundreds. Or just by themselves. Whether they arrive by plane, bus, boat, or train. The events of this past week on Capitol Hill showed us just how differently a state can respond to those who walk on the wrong side of law, depending on how they choose to brand a community. Protestors. Patriots. Citizens. Refugees. Visitors. Terrorists. These terms come with pre-written narratives, concocted by societies that enjoy color-coding their penal systems.

The key here is that in a system where ‘tolerance’ means to ‘tolerate’ rather than to welcome or celebrate, those who are being ‘tolerated’ are always only just one step, one shade of pigment, one ride in the wrong vehicle, away from becoming ‘intolerable.’


Canada’s Checkered Past with Migration and Prejudice

Canada has long enjoyed its status as the immigration dreamboat. The country is so well established as a beacon of migration and tolerance that I’m continually surprised they haven’t found a way to make Toronto the last stop on the Shatabdi Express. Of course with a Prime Minister who looks like the little mermaid's love interest, and is no stranger to a well-tailored salwar, Canada is the immigration eye-candy that everyone wants to love. Especially when compared to its gun-toting wall-building drone-striking neighbour to the South, it begins to take a good amount of concentration not to overlook Canada’s checkered past with migration, prejudice, and racism. More worryingly, it becomes even harder to challenge its questionable present.

Canadian academic Harini Sivalingam investigates this in her research on the arrival of two boats of Tamil maritime forced migrants via the MV Ocean Lady (2009), and MV Sun Sea (2010) onto the traditional territories of the Songhees First Nations (Victoria, British Columbia, Canada) to explore how maritime forced migrants navigate and experience laws and legal processes in their journeys to seek refuge, which she summarized in the simple 17 syllable haiku above. When asked why she chose to focus on this issue, and why it continues to be relevant today, Harini says “when the boats first arrived, the Tamil refugees were treated with such open hostility not only by some elements of the public, but by the Canadian government officials as well. I wondered if people knew and heard the stories of what these refugees were fleeing from and the risks that they took to get to safety in Canada, would that have changed their opinions on these boat arrivals and how they were treated? That’s the inspiration for my research: getting these stories out there and documenting the narratives of these survivors of brutal state violence"

The 2010 MV Sun Sea Incident

Describing the incident which sparked her research, Sivalingam writes “Ten years ago, a rickety boat filled with the hopes and dreams of 76 Tamil men, who fled horrors in their homeland in search of safety, security, and stability, was intercepted off the coast of Vancouver. The arrival of the MV Ocean Lady on Oct. 17, 2009 sent shock waves throughout Canada. Ten months later, the MV Sun Sea arrived, bearing its cargo of 492 Tamil men, women, and children.

The government at the time sought to attribute sinister motives toward those on board; the media raced to gather information about their origins; refugee rights activists scrambled to respond to media inquiries; and the Tamil-Canadian community mobilized to provide humanitarian and legal assistance. Everyone wondered the same things: Where did this boat come from? Who were these people who risked their lives on a dangerous journey across the Pacific Ocean? Why did they choose Canada?

Immediately upon arrival, these refugees were detained, locked up, and interrogated, many of them for lengthy periods of time, families were separated, and children were detained. In contravention of international refugee norms, the Canadian government shared personal information about these refugees with the very government they were fleeing: the Sri Lankan state. Once released from detention, most of the claimants waited in limbo for years for their first refugee hearing.”

A Convenient Filing System

The arrivals of these Tamil forced migrants became a public spectacle within Canada, and thrust them into the spotlight of political, legal and public scrutiny. Rather than employing a humanitarian framework to respond to their arrival, the political and legal approaches employed by the Canadian government was focused on categorizing these refugee claimants as national security threats within the public domain - terrorists, queue jumpers, public health threats, ‘illegal’, and human smugglers. And while this narrative may have been set in place by the Canadian government, it’s ability to make itself at home in so many of the living rooms and dinner tables across the supposedly progressive nation revealed that behind the even smiles and the maple covered everything, that same penchant toward a color-coded legal system prevailed.

Canadians, as it turned out, were equally as willing to participate in a dialogue of othering and hate, as American’s were.

In her research, Sivalingam points out that "these refugees were treated differently from other refugees simply because of how they arrived: en masse and on a boat. The Canadian Conservative government of the time (yes, this exists) then proceeded to legalize this differential treatment. Using the Ocean Lady and Sun Sea as political props, the Conservative government drastically overhauled Canada’s refugee and immigration systems creating a hierarchy of refugees with different tiers of legal rights.

Ten years after the arrival of the MV Sun Sea, the vast majority of those arrivals have settled well, but some have slipped through the cracks facing difficult challenges of integration. Most of those who came on the Ocean Lady and Sun Sea carry with them deep-seated trauma having witnessed and experienced horrendous human rights violations, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide during the armed conflict in Sri Lanka.” And one assumes, being subjected to detention on arrival in a country which touts itself as the international benchmark for altruism, certainly wouldn’t have helped.

But, Justin Trudeau!

This journey to refuge, then, is also the journey of becoming Othered, to move into a new place where one’s identity label brings about the structural violence of anti-immigration. Of course, the great Canadian migration tale is not without its highlights. The country hosts the world’s largest Punjabi population outside of Punjab, has a standard issue hijab as part of its national police uniform, and perhaps most iconically, includes Punjabi as a language on most city-based ATMS. Most memorably, Trudeau himself greeted the first arrival of Syrian refugees when they arrived on Canadian soil in 2015.

But before we get distracted by Prince Charming's heartthrob stance on immigration, let's take a moment to remind ourselves that the politician du jour does not always dictate and define an entire society's systemic preferences, nor do they determine whether a society at base is willing to eradicate its racial prejudice and the way in which that prejudice defines policy and impacts lives.

What we saw emerge on Capitol Hill this past week was unfortunately not a solitary event or even something limited to solitary country or governing administration. The fact is that there is little question that the system which permitted thousands of violent white insurrectionists to launch a formal assault on a national capital, would have responded quite differently, had those same people been colored. And it is the same system of endemic racism that saw fit to treat a boat full of Sri Lankan refugees to incarceration and detainment on arrival, just a few latitude north in 'immigrant-friendly posterboy' Canada. One cant help but imagine that the 492 Tamil men, women, and children aboard the MV Sun Sea that day might have been treated more like a cruise gone wrong than a barbaric invasion, had they simply borne a somewhat ‘milkier’ complexion.

Why history matters, why this matters

Currently, there are over 50 million people around the world who have been forced from their homes, people fleeing violence, war, injustice, oppression, threats to themselves, their lives, their children’s lives, their parents lives. These 50 million people walk about the world largely unseen, or invisible.

And where they are seen, they are bracketed under all kinds of labels that do little more than provide those of us who have safety with a nice cozy feeling of entitlement and distance – distance between our lives and theirs – the “boat people,” the “asylum-seekers,” the ones who are “really just economic migrants,” “foreigners” - any term that separates the “them” from the “us.” Why not just call them what they actually are – people, trying to find a safe place to live their lives.

A place where they can raise their children, and go to work, and eat their dinner in peace. It’s really not all that different from us. So why do we deserve to have peace in our lives, and somehow they don’t? When did the pursuit of a peaceful life become such an outrageous request? We go through every day thinking that all we want is a little peace of mind, but for these 50 million people, it’s like “how dare they!” Why is that? Perhaps at base it might be reduced to a single term: white privilege.

In Canada, while the MV Sun Sea might seem like old news, the sentiments it reveals are regrettably not old news at all. Because while the rest of the world has simply watched while the US spent the better part of the last 12 months collapsing into a fiery hell-pit of near-facism, just a few kilometers north, Canadians were busy asking the ultimate question of 2020 - “Okay, but how contagious is it?” And unfortunately, even the gods of Pfizer and AstraZeneca can’t quite save us from this one.


Conservatism in Canada is often glossed over because the whole world is looking over at the election-contesting, violence-inciting, orange mess of a President, and there’s no way Canada is like that, right? When in fact, Canada and the US should be treated like siblings, not identical but made up of similar things: settler colonialism, violence against indigenous communities, and white supremacy. And because of that, it’s not immune to the ideologies behind Trumpism; the seeds are planted in its history and Trump’s presidency simply watered them. It’s been pointed out that even though Trump strays from Conservative values, for example only respecting democracy when he feels like it, there is still a significant percentage of Canadians on the right who support Trump and his claims of a fraudulent election.

Erin O’Toole, leader of the Conservative Party of Canada, isn’t blind to his opportunity to harness this, using it to fuel his agenda which mirrors Trump’s. “Take Back Canada” and “Canada First” are two examples that spring to mind. And just like in Trump’s America, this brand of dangerous populism mixed with extreme nationalism and the base ingredient, white supremacy, continues to endanger those like the 492 Tamil men, women, and children who fled for their safety. Just like in Trump’s America, the harm brought about by this unique brand of bigotry threatens not only refugees, but also BLM protestors, human rights advocates, and generally anyone who refuses to subscribe to a penal system that doles out selective punishment like a broken slot machine in a Trump Casino. (You lose! And You lose! And You lose!! We all lose our rights!!)

While Biden’s election victory isn’t a magic wand that’ll wave those sentiments away, it does signal a small margin of possibility for society to walk-back some of the more painful leaps into bigotry it has so joyfully flung itself through over these past few years. But those who seek to move legal systems to a place where protection is valued with equal vigor as prosecution, there remain nearly as many challenges as there were a short month ago - albeit, minus one particularly noxious twitter account. Strength in numbers presented itself dangerously on the Capitol, but we’ve also seen greater numbers in those fighting on the other side, and the commitment to keep pushing the needle forward. In her award winning poem “Home”, Warsan Shire writes “you have to understand that no one puts their children in a boat, unless the water is safer than the land.” And that is why we each push. We each do our small part, to ensure that when those small feet make it to land once more, they can be safe.


About the Researcher:

Harini Sivalingam’s research examines how Tamil maritime forced migrants from Sri Lanka who arrived to Canada aboard the MV Ocean Lady and MV Sun Sea conceptualize and navigate their experiences prior to and during their maritime journey, and upon encounter with the Canadian state. By focusing on this ‘hypervisible’ example of maritime forced migration, the research investigates how Tamil forced maritime migrants experience their journeys and arrivals to Canada.

Summary excerpts of Sivalingam’s research have been taken from this article which she authored to mark the 10 year anniversary of the incident in 2019.

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