Tag Archives: international migration

No Simple Answers – Migrant Boat in BC Waters

18 Oct

Today I was asked by a reporter if Sri Lanka was off the coast of Africa. “Pardon my ignorance,” he said. He was writing a story about a  boat with 76 migrants from Sri Lanka which appeared off the coast of British Columbia on Saturday October 17. “No”, I explained, “Sri Lanka is just below India”.

Another reporter asked me if the migrants would be held in jail. “Yes”, I said. “You mean like criminals?”, the reporter asked. “Yes”, I replied, “with criminals and those charged with crimes in pre-trial detention centres”.

Yet another asked, “can you explain briefly how the process works?”. When I began to explain the interaction between the RCMP and the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA), how Canada was a signatory to several international conventions and protocols to assist refugees, how the process worked at the Immigration and Refugee Board – Refugee Protection Division (IRB-RPD), and more, the reporter quickly stopped me and wanted to know if there was a simpler way to explain the process.

I raise these examples, not to point fingers at the media, but rather to show how the media in its desire to get the story out, is pushed to report it quickly, with reporters who have had little time to research and prepare, and with a burden to present both sides of the story so as to be “fair”.

I was involved with a similar story back in the Summer of 1999 when four ships arrived of the coast of British Columbia carrying approximately 599 migrants from mainland China (mainly Fujian Province). The hysteria at that time was that Canada was about to be overrun by illegal migrants from China and that Canada was being too lax in granting access to the refugee process from those who had arrived on the ships. A group named DAARE has prepared a detailed report of that episode in Canadian immigration history.

Ten years after that episode what amazes me is that the issues around “irregular” migration flows (that is the terms used to describe those who enter Canada without the appropriate visas or documents), continue to polarize the Canadian public. The media in response to the public interest responds by framing the issues in black and white contrast, the complex middle ground appears to be  too difficult to report.

As I write about this latest episode of migrants coming to Canada’s shores, it is the complex middle ground that interests me. Here are some of my thoughts.

First, the real story is not that this boat came to Canada but why we do not see more boats of migrants off the coasts of Canada. The Canadian public should realize that there are significant irregular migration flows all over the world. Migrants are driven from their home countries by civil wars, persecution, global climate changes, and more. Millions are on the move, 42 million in total of which 16 million are refugees. Canada’s IRB-RPD has projected an intake of about 36,000 new claims for 2008-2009. Now do the math. Canada, due to its geography (separated from most refugee producing countries by big oceans and a well watched land border) and intensive interdiction practices, takes very few of the global flows of refugees.

Second, processing refugees is expensive and complex. In addition to the costs of the IRB-RPD process (approximately $4700 per claim) there are social programs and other costs. Why is this surprising or unacceptable to many Canadians? The costs related to honouring international humanitarian commitments are high, but it is (in part) Canada’s adherence to such commitments that repeatedly results in Canada being ranked as one of the best countries to live in. I would argue that respecting the legal and human rights of migrants is part and parcel of what makes Canada the country that it is. The very people who argue that migrants have too many rights and receive too many “appeals”, I would venture, are the same people who would want to have access to all the legal safeguards and appeals if they (or their loved ones) were charged with an offence.

Third, the challenges related to irregular migration flows will only grow with time. As the results of climate change take hold, as resources decline and as the divide between the “haves” and “have nots” grows, managing global migration flows to Canada will become one of Canada’s major challenges. We can see how some of these pressures are manifesting themselves as Canada tries to manage the flows by imposing and removing visa restrictions on various countries, and by negotiating trade agreements that include the flow of migrant labour (skilled and unskilled) to Canada.

This latest story of the ship which arrived off the coast of British Columbia is symptomatic of a larger complex problem. Sorry folks, no simple answers.