Asian Boat People: A Canadian Crisis? Part 3

Part three of a term paper I wrote in the spring on Canadian refugee policy and political discourses around "boat people" refugees... relevant to the current issue of Tamil refugees and the reaction to their arrival. Hopefully this may provide some context for anyone unfamiliar with the politics of refugee acceptance in Canada. Also, any feedback is completely welcome. This is a paper I have some affection for and wouldn't mind working into something more publishable.

The Institutional Field of Canadian Refugee Policy

Cynthia Hardy and Nelson Phillips describe how social discourses are absorbed into "institutional fields", the discursive structures that encompass not only societal discourses, but also extend to include policy making apparatuses and enforcement structures (Hardy and Phillips 1999). Institutional fields extend discourses between political spheres, public media discussions into bureaucratically entrenched policy discourses, which in my view connects them to Foucault's idea of governmentality. In democratic, media-saturated political environments like Canada, institutional fields are the paths through which discourses permeate every level of our society. Governmentality is effected at levels of both policy and practice. Institutional barriers to acceptance can be interpreted as either forms of power be directly effected by institutions, or we can look at institutions themselves in the broader contexts of discourses which effect them.

The Immigration and Refugee Boards are a perfect example of an institution that is deeply affected and transformed by the institutional field that it sits within. Essentially, the IRB is an institution whose rules are all governed by humanitarian principles, but acts as if it was governed by principles of sovereignty which are invisible in its written policies. For this reason, it drew sharp criticism from the Montreal researchers who argued that its cultural biases were preventing it from fulfilling its legally mandated objectives: to provide fair and non-confrontational adjudications of refugee claims (Rousseau et. al 2002). The tenor of refugee adjudication became out of line with its supposedly humanitarian values, and the ground level systems for dealing with refugee claims became obsessed with weeding out "gatecrashers" and "economic migrants" (Rousseau et. al 2002). The Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) had transformed from its mandate as a non-confrontational body to a confrontational court, where the legal rights of claimants were undermined by the cultural differences of IRB members, who sought to use a variety of tactics to test and attack the refugees' narratives: primarily finding inconsistencies and treating them as lies (Rousseau et al 2002)(Kirmayer 2002).

All of these changes formed part of the growing "Myth of the Lying Refugee", that was previously only easily observed in the media, a framing process by which refugee applicants claims were subjected to an outrageous set of verifications and tested for complete consistency over the course of the written and oral interviews that constitute the refugee adjudication process (Rousseau and Foxen 2006). But why did the boards begin, more and more, to turn the refugee hearings into a confrontational space? Such deep twisting of the fundamental values of a institution can not be explained only as the results of the poor intercultural skills of its participants, but needs to be looked at in the context of the institutional field which has already condemned the people it is evaluating as illegals. Furthermore, it need not be the only voice of humanitarianism in the process, because the courts will always serve as the final appeal for refugee applicants. If it is not the actual arbitrator of the claims, than it fits well within the state's attempts to deflect claims. I would argue that these efforts, on a bureaucratic level, are reflections of the greater efforts to deflect claims and discourage “the wrong kind” of refugee claims.


States would prefer to have “ideal refugees” which they could choose, control the numbers of acceptances, and fairly share the burden with other capable nations. But such a conditions do not exist in this world. Stateless people are stateless because states generally aren't interested in taking on new citizens. Canada's contribution to traditional refugee acceptance is the second most per-capita of any developed country (Millbank 1999), and it still falls dramatically short of the what is necessary. Until states work together to deal with the problems of displaced people, asylum claims will continue to be the mainstream way for refugees to attempt to mitigate their situation.

In this paper, I've attempted to problematize the traditional concept of the refugee and show how the state responds to the problem of global statelessness by attempting to deflect entry and close down borders. In this context, Asian boat people, whether Indian, Sri Lanka, Chinese or otherwise, avoid the measures of deflection employed by states in such a dramatic way that states are able to take advantage of the media attention such events garner in order to promote a discursive crisis, in which they can strengthen their efforts to reject refugees. But the system of governmentality extends not just to the border control efforts and policies, but through institutional fields until the domestic adjudication of asylum claims is itself poisoned by a discourse that focuses on illegality and favors rejection.

James Hathaway and Alexander Neve put deflectionary measures up against the principles of human rights and equality, even for non-citizens, that are expressed in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the Supreme Court's Singh Decision: “deflection runs afoul of both these principles by mechanistically and summarily excluding asylum seekers without any inquiry into their need for protection.... [it] is no more than an unconscionable attempt to shift duties away”. It is unconscionable. And attempting to maintain such a contradiction between values and action has led to the inhumanity of the Canadian state's relations with asylum seekers.

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