Skip to main content

The war of rhetoric ignited by the arrival of 492 Tamil asylum seekers on board the Sun Sea vessel should have no bearing on the outcome of their claims.

Each case must be decided on its merits, based on Canada's refugee laws, and the precise definition of who is in need of protection.

The nature and length of the passengers' voyage ought not to be deciding factors in their cases. Nor should their view of the ongoing violence in Sri Lanka, where there was a bloody, 26-year civil war until May, 2009. The failure of the Sri Lankan government to investigate alleged human-rights abuses committed at the war's end is lamentable, but is not grounds for an asylum claim.

Instead, the Immigration and Refugee Board will assess whether each claimant genuinely fears persecution based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a social group, and whether this fear has an objective basis. Canada also accepts those in need of protection because of a danger of torture, risk to their life or cruel and unusual punishment if they are returned to their homeland. The IRB relies on country reports from the International Crisis Group and other organizations.

This hasn't stopped government ministers, advocacy groups and refugee lawyers from trying to shape a picture in the public's mind of who these Tamil claimants are.

Public Safety Minister Vic Toews declared last week that smugglers and terrorists were aboard the ship. Peter Showler, a former chair of the IRB, disputed this. The Canadian Tamil Congress released an unsigned letter, purportedly on behalf of the refugee claimants, saying they are innocent civilians. "We have travelled for almost four months with much suffering and pain," the letter says. "We have come here to protect ourselves from the murders, disappearances and violence that still exist in our native country."

Last month, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees changed its guidelines for Sri Lanka, saying Tamils are no longer at risk of indiscriminate harm. While some senior members of the Tamil Tigers, considered a terrorist organization in Canada, may be excluded from refugee eligibility, others who were coerced to join may be in need of protection, the guidelines state. Among the most vulnerable are: child soldiers; journalists; human-rights activists; and woman and girls. Sri Lankan asylum seekers actually decreased by 35 per cent during the first six months of this year, compared with this period in 2009.

The security situation in any post-conflict country is fluid and complex. It is up to the IRB - and not politicians or others - to adjudicate each claim. Unsigned letters and sweeping statements about the passengers are not helpful.