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The ‘Boatophobia’ debate: Dehumanising asylum seekers and refugees

Aug 27, 2010 10:25:14 PM- transcurrents.com

by Swati Parashar

Counter terror experts and security analysts are back in action and what do they fear this time? Not bombs, IEDs, nor suicide bombers but the ‘boatpeople’! I have gained sufficient insight into the issue, having camped in Australia for the last two months, to comment on what I call a new form of racism called ‘boatophobia’.

At stake are the lives of faceless, nameless (not the men in the Australian Labour Party who ordered the political assassination of former Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd!), men, women and children from war hit countries of Afghanistan and Sri Lanka. The two major Australian political parties, in their election campaign, made sure that the ‘boat peoples’ issue was projected as a national security issue. The Australian Labour Party leader and current PM, Julia Gillard, promised a detention centre in East Timor and a ‘small and sustainable Australia’; the Liberal National Party promised the reopening of the detention centre in Nauru and their leader, Tony Abbot, went around repeating as a mantra; “we will stop the boats.” The election has resulted in no clear mandate for either party, and a hung parliament, but the ‘boatophobia’ is here to stay as Australians continue to debate the threats from the faceless, nameless ‘boat people’.

The identity-less’ boat people’ are also back in news, ever since the Thai cargo ship, MV Sun Sea landed at the Canadian coast of British Columbia last week, with 495 Sri Lankan Tamil asylum seekers. I haven’t seen any of these ‘boat people’ myself, but security experts, who are yet to visit the detention centres in Canada, have wasted no opportunity in declaring the Tamil ‘boat people’ as LTTE terrorists and potential threats to the ‘host countries’. The ‘boatophobes’ appear particularly concerned about the security of the host country, Canada, in this case and have accused the Canadian authorities of being slipshod on terrorism laws and granting asylum to terrorists and of endangering people’s lives. ‘boatophobes’ aka xenophobes from Canada would still have some legitimate concerns, because it is their country that is ‘under threat’ from foreigners descending on their soil to avail of their hospitality. Of grave concern is that ‘boatophobic’ experts in South and South East Asia are defining the ‘security’ requirements of the Western nations. Their arguments are not only patronising and racist but also dehumanise and demonise the Sri Lankan Tamil community, who have more than one reason to escape the brutalities of life in a country that they cannot even call ‘home’.

In the genre of writings on Sri Lankan ‘boat people’, N Sathiyamoorthy, published an article recently in the Daily Mirror from Colombo. In the article called Refugees, Who?, the author cautions against the dangers of granting asylum to potential LTTE terrorists, which would jeopardise the chances of genuine refugees seeking shelter abroad. He argues that “the whole world was monitoring the movement of the so-called ‘refugee ship’ and did nothing about it.” Chiding the Canadian authorities for a lax attitude, the author, writes that “they did not learn their lessons from a host of terrorist incidents elsewhere. Nor did insurgencies in other countries move their law-makers and lawyers”. In the light of such observations and allegations it is important to note that modern ‘terrorists’ have not travelled by boat to Western nations. There is no evidence that any 'boatpeople' turned into potential terrorists of the 9/11 types. ‘Terrorists’ in the West are often the products of societies that they have willingly and legally adopted as ‘homes’ and may not even be first generation immigrants.

The Canadian authorities have a tough task ahead as they scrutinise each individual asylum claim. The asylum seekers remain in detention from where their individual claims will be processed. To suggest that all of these people could be LTTE terrorists amounts to fear mongering in Western societies already brimming with anti-immigration sentiments. Without any evidence to suggest that any of the ‘boat people’ were carrying arms or plotting attacks anywhere, experts are speculating on their terrorist linkages. This speaks of prejudice and racism in itself. Security experts had expressed a similar outcry and fear mongering at the arrival of the ship Ocean Lady at the Canadian coast in October 2009, which was carrying 76 Tamil refugees. The refugees were all men and were held in detention on terrorism charges. All the detainees were subsequently acquitted of any wrong doing, and are waiting for the processing of their refugee claims in Toronto. So much for the ‘terrorism’ hysteria!

On the issue of possible persecution from which the Tamil refugees may be escaping, Mr. Sathiyamoorthy argues that, “if individuals were still being persecuted for their political beliefs in Sri Lanka, how is it that even anti-Government Tamil or Sinhala groups have been contesting elections and winning parliamentary and Provincial Council seats, and also addressing those august forums?.” Contesting elections is not the marker of any country's Human Rights performance. Zimbabwe and Burma are examples in this regard. India is a beacon of democracy where all kinds of political views are tolerated and elections contested, but there are communities which are still marginalised and claim persecution. In a deeply divided country that Sri Lanka is, where the war between the two ethnic communities has been the reality of lived experiences, ‘persecution’ has overt and subtle manifestations. The vehement opposition to the three member UN panel by Sinhalese leaders speaks volumes about the government’s intent to address the grievances of the Tamils and their blatant violation of international norms. The demonstrations against the United Nations expert panel were led by a government minister, Wimal Weerawansa and clearly demonstrated the government’s open hostility to investigations of alleged war crimes in the war against the LTTE that concluded last year.

Human Rights violations are unabated as detention, death and disappearances of Tamil youth are repeatedly reported by international agencies. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, apart from other independent international media have regularly published reports on the plight of the Tamils in Sri Lanka. It is impossible to even imagine substantively, that a government that does not hesitate to intimidate the international community cannot threaten the lives of its own citizens, especially the vanquished in war! In April last year, 46 illegal immigrants died and 60 were found unconscious in an airless shipping container near Quetta in Pakistan. All of the victims were Afghan nationals including Uzbeks, Tajiks and Hazaras who were trying to enter Iran through unfrequented routes of Balochistan having no valid travel documents. Were they ‘terrorists’, potential security threats? Could we, along the same lines, question their ‘persecution’ claims or human rights violations on the grounds that they have an elected government in Afghanistan to represent them and international forces monitor their country and enforce accountability?

The author further suggests that, “in the case of Sri Lankan Tamils, for instance – all those who are already there in far-off lands like Australia, Canada and all across Europe – India should have been their first and natural port-of-call, particularly if they did not have any terrorist links or even if their claims to refugee status in far-off lands were genuine”. It is unfathomable that, given the role India has played, and given the credibility it enjoys in Sri Lanka, India should even be considered a safe haven by the Sri Lankan Tamil community. It is very patronising to suggest that while migrant communities (including Indians) everywhere can travel to lands where there is prosperity and better economic and social opportunities, Sri Lankan Tamils, if ‘innocent’ should consider India their favoured destination from where they can return ‘home’, whatever ‘home’ implies. As for how India treats its refugees, we might ask the Kashmiri Pandits that, or other internally displaced people.

It is not a hidden fact that India provided material and moral support to the Sri Lankan government to decimate the Tigers and that India also absolved the Sri Lankan government for the large number of civilian deaths in the name of collateral damage. The IPKF experience was also a failed experiment by the Indian government, inflicting atrocities on the Tamil people. India has never played the role of a responsible regional leader in its relations with the neighbouring countries. In the post war environment too, India’s engagement with Sri Lanka intensified as a counter to growing Chinese influence and investments in reconstruction efforts. India’s role in Sri Lanka has been as disastrous as its handling of the ongoing Kashmir protests, which many of us, Indians, watch with horror and trepidation. In such a situation, to even suggest that Sri Lankan refugees should consider India their home, is not only a violation of their free will but also patronising towards the very people, whose lives have been affected by the policies of the Indian government, albeit indirectly.

The author concedes that the reasons for the long voyage undertaken by the MV Sun Sea asylum seekers might be “more economical than political. If there is politics involved, it may relate to the determination of a de-capacitated group to embarrass their own government in the international arena and media, alike.” I ask, aren’t economic migrants entitled to refugee status? What economic opportunities lie in a war torn country, that too, for the vanquished? They are not 'refugees' in such kinds of analyses but their intentions are suspect and they are labelled potential terrorists. Could we apply the same scrutiny and labelling to the Indians who travelled to Malaysia and then disappeared, willingly, for better life and economic opportunities? Are all Hispanics in America living illegally, terrorists? There is also a suggestion that these people may have travelled all the way to Canada to embarrass their government. Surely embarrassing governments is not a crime? It is difficult to imagine that ‘embarassing the government’ was the concern of these Tamil asylum seekers, (women and children included) who risked their lives in this long voyage without any guarantees of the success of their mission.

Several other analysts have argued that such asylum seekers abuse refugee claims and status and thereby, deny such rights to ‘genuine’ refugees. This false concern for the Western governments and how their rights and privileges may be exploited is a façade to delegitimise the demands of Tamil asylum seekers. Before the Sri Lankan Tamil ‘boat people’ issue, South Asian analysts were completely oblivious to the issue of illegal immigration and refugees in the West. Australia or Canada or the United Kingdom, do not need us to do their bidding. They have policies in place to address this issue and are governed by their own values and political convictions. Australia and Canada in particular are immigrant societies. John Moore of Canadian News talk 1010 reminds, “As the countries of origin of our newcomers became more diverse, each new wave was regarded as lazy, grasping, unwashed and unwanted. Trace your family’s roots and not only are you guaranteed to find an immigrant but also likely an ethnic or cultural community that was denigrated in its time. And how soon we forget it.”

None of these fear mongering analyses on the ‘boat people’ actually take an international stance against illegal immigration. Their concern is only the Tamil ‘boat people’. There are more illegal immigrants (large numbers of Indians included) who travel by other means than in an easily interceptible boat or ship which will be thoroughly investigated upon landing at any national coast. It is common logic to imagine why the Tamils would be running from Sri Lanka at a time when they have lost everything in war, an environment of fear persists and there is no leadership that can address their grassroots problems. Dehumanising the asylum seekers through fear mongering and through the ‘securitisation’ discourse speaks of prejudices that still persist on this issue. Every Sri Lankan Tamil is being seen as an LTTE sympathiser or supporter, thereby making a mockery of their plight and suffering.

Prejudices are bound to exist amidst diversity and where resources and access to opportunities of all hues are scarce and highly competitive. Scholars, analysts and policy experts do not operate in situational vacuum and are affected by biases too. It is worth considering that seeking asylum by boat is not "illegal". In fact, it is a right guaranteed under national and international law. It is neither requisite nor fair to punish people who are simply trying to escape harsher conditions of a post war society. Moreover, each asylum seeker’s case is dealt with individually and thoroughly. ‘Terrorists’ do not have predictable characteristics, neither do they come from a particular class or ethnicity alone. The so called experts and ‘boatophobes’ have hastily, in their zeal to brand the entire Sri Lankan Tamil community as ‘terrorists’, pronounced their verdict on the ‘boat people’ - Guilty, unless proven innocent.

(The author is a Lecturer of International Relations and Development at University of Limerick, Ireland. She can be contacted at swatiparashar@hotmail.com)