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Harper's "Boycott" of the Commonwealth Meeting is Meaningless

by Paul Di Stefano

Harper's "Boycott" of the Commonwealth Meeting is Meaningless


Let’s get something straight: Stephen Harper’s recent “boycott” of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Sri Lanka is as disingenuous as it gets.


In October, the Canadian Prime Minister announced that he would boycott the meeting based on the Sri Lankan government’s steadily declining human rights record. Harper’s current concern for human rights in the context of Sri Lanka is especially astounding. While Harper pretends to be a champion of human rights in Sri Lanka, his government has persistently criminalized and detained refugees from Sri Lanka seeking protection from the same abusive government that he now chastises.


In August, 2010, the MV Sun Sea, a Thai registered cargo ship carrying 492 Tamil refugees was intercepted by the Canadian military. Amid a xenophobic-laden discourse that included unsubstantiated fears of illness and disease, and described the migrants as “terrorists”, “human cargo” and “criminals”, the Harper government was quick to pronounce guilt even before inquiring whether these labels were substantiated. As Katie Derosa has noted, just hours after the arrival of the ship, Public Safety Minister Vic Toews announced that the government “must ensure that our refugee system is not hijacked by criminals or terrorists.” After a grueling three-month journey that saw one man die at sea, the government did not welcome these refugees as individuals fleeing persecution and war; instead, it sent 443 men and women and 49 children to detention centers near Vancouver, effectively criminalizing them. In her recent book, Undoing Border Imperialism, Harsha Walia notes, “Migrants are not seen for their actual humanity but instead as a problem to be prevented, deterred, managed and contained…These narratives buttress moral panics about ‘keeping borders safe and secure’ from poor and racialized migrants.” The Canadian Council for Refugees shares the concern around this discourse and acknowledges its potential to undermine the entire system: “Constant negative references to refugee claimants undermine the independence of Canada’s refugee system and the support of Canadians for those who come to Canada hoping for safety and freedom, and to be treated with dignity.”


A recently released document under the Access to Information Act reveals that even before the boat arrived, Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) endeavoured to deny status to the 492 refugees aboard the Sea Sun. The document states that the approach for refugee determination hearings “will be dealt with aggressively” and that the CBSA will prepare “evidence packages” meant to show “why [each] person is not a refugee.” It seems odd that, even before conducting inquiries as to who was aboard the ship, the Canadian government was already setting the stage for deportation. The memo continues, “Those who are found to be inadmissible…will be removed to Sri Lanka.” In the months and years after the arrival of the MV Sun Sea, the CBSA did, indeed, hold true to its word, detaining and deporting many of the refugee claimants. One passenger who was deported, Sathyapavan Aseervatham, alleged in an affidavit that Sri Lankan security forces that knew that he had been aboard the vessel in 2010 had tortured and jailed him for one year upon his return to Sri Lanka. The Canadian Council of Refugees has recently asked that there be an investigation into whether the CBSA shared the confidential affidavit with his torturers.


While Harper preaches respect for human rights abroad, the Conservative government increasingly engages in an egregious form of border imperialism at home. The Canadian government criminalizes migration while at the same time benefitting economically from the movement of “acceptable” but ephemeral racialized bodies across borders through programs like the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP) and the Live-in Caregiver Program (LCP). In 2008, there were 18,696 and 13,875 in each program; by 2012 the numbers in the SAWP and LCP swelled to 25,509 and 19,830 respectively. Overall, Canada has seen a 70% increase in migrant workers over the last five years. While Canadians continue to benefit from such exploitative schemes in the form of low cost produce and other goods and services, migrant labourers live and work under oppressive conditions where abuse is rife and recourse is almost non-existent.


The implementation of Bill C-31 in December of 2012 signalled a new phase in Canada’s war on refugees. Not only does the bill disadvantage the most vulnerable refugees by reducing timelines to submit evidence to support claims, it also denies refugees the right of appeal if they come from a “designated country of origin”. These refugees face immediate deportation after a negative decision. According to No One is Illegal-Vancouver, deportations from Canada have sky-rocketed in the last decade, with 13,000 deportations in 2010 alone, while approved asylum claims have dropped by 56%. According to the Canadian Department of Citizenship and Immigration, total entries for refugee claimants decreased from 31,777 in 2003 to 20,461 in 2012. Furthermore, Bill C-31gives discretionary power to the Minister of Public Safety who may designate groups of two or more foreign nationals as “irregular arrivals”, thus leading to fewer rights, mandatory detention (if over the age of 16), no access to permanent residence for five years, and no right of appeal. As Lorenzo Fiorito reports, the use of the designation “irregular arrival” certainly conjures up memories of the “non-continuous passage” charge that was used in 1908 to exclude South Asian immigrants aboard the Komagata Maru from landing in Canada. As a result of these changes to the refugee determination system, the first half of 2013 has seen a 50% drop in refugee claims.


In Harper’s October speech outlining the reasons for a possible boycott of the CHOGM, he noted, “…if the Commonwealth is to remain relevant it must stand in defence of the basic principles of freedom, democracy, and respect for human dignity, which are the very foundation upon which the Commonwealth was built.” While Harper continues to castigate other nations, his government persists in criminalizing migrants, exploiting the movement of racialized bodies across borders, and denying the rights guaranteed to those fleeing persecution under international law.


Stephen Harper can talk all he wants about human rights, but he has absolutely no right to speak on behalf of those whom his government criminalizes and exploits on a daily basis.

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Topics: Migration

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