Asian Boat People: A Canadian Crisis? Part 2

Part two 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 Discourse of Sovereignty and Humanitarianism

Refugee policy in Canada is caught between two of the most important legitimizing discourses of the modern liberal state: humanitarianism and sovereignty (Hardy and Phillips 1999). The humanitarianism discourse plays up the importance of accepting refugees, as peoples stripped of their agency, and acts to restore their fundamental human rights. The sovereignty discourse fears the impact of accepting too many refugees or the “wrong kind” of refugees, and also fears the delegitimization of citizenship if it becomes too easy to gain. Humanitarianism is also used to promote the tightening of the refugee system in that it will make it easier for the “right kind of refugee” (Hardy and Philips 1999:8). However, humanitarian discourses are typically employed to argue against restrictions placed on asylum seekers. Harald Bauder (2008) shows how humanitarian discourses are used to defend the boat people and other refugees by arguing for a view of refugee acceptance that goes beyond the traditional “Other” waiting to be chosen.

Harald Bauder (2008 cites a conception of humanitarianism which is heavily grounded in identity that defines the the nation as “compassionate and caring”, which is established in media reporting on contested claims. He notes that rejections of the Chinese Boat People were legitimized by their representations in the Canadian media as “racialized, illegal and non-belonging” placed in stark contrast to the legitimate “regular” selection process of the choosing of the “Other”, worthy of the nation's kindness (Bauder 2008). Cynthia Hardy and Nelson Philips discuss in detail the connection of the humanitarian and sovereignty discourse to paternalism and empowerment. Refugees are helpless, subordinate to government or social work professionals, needing to be saved or chosen, unable to participate in economic or political activity. Or alternatively, refugees are empowered, agency-possessing and capable of contributing in political and economic ways. But the same positives of the empowered refugee are also the source of suspicion for those who have pre-conceived notions of the “helpless refugee”, an autonomous an independent refugee is not a refugee at all, but a “fraudulent and abusive” migrant (Hardy and Philips 1999).
The Makings of a Discursive Crisis

Sean Hiers and Joshua Greenberg's framing of the 1999 Boat People "crisis", not as a real crisis in any sense of an institutional breakdown, but as an imagined "discursive crisis”. A discursive crisis is another technique through which governmentality is applied. Such a crisis represents “discursive moments which signify the conditions under which decisive interventions can be made and it is these narrated representations of crises which are the objects of state response” (Hiers and Greenberg 2002). Cynthia Hardy, Nelson Philips, Harald Bauder, Joshua Greenberg, and Sean Hiers observe that the Canadian media responds to refugees as a rupture in the normal business of refugee policy. By evading deflectionary measures and coming directly to Canada, they challenge the fundamental assumptions that the Canadian public held about refugees: the countries that they came from, their supposed lack of agency and their rights in Canada. But by looking at this “rupture” as not an institutional breakdown in the sense of a true crisis, but as a purposeful exertion of power by the state, the same forces which a discursive crisis attempts to obscure can also be revealed.

The Chinese Boat People arrived in Canada in the Summer of 1999, four ships caught by the Coast Guard off the British Columbia coast, but within Canadian territorial waters. The migrants were incarcerated in several locations across the province, on military bases and at a renovated prison in Prince George. Very quickly, a torrent of negative media began to focus around the migrants, shaping their role as a threat to first Canadians well-being and the fairness of the refugees waiting to be chosen (Ferguson 2000). Reporting on the refugees arrival became quickly fixated on the “risk” to Canadian society and sovereignty being posed by such Boat Peoples, whether it was disease, terrorism or simply a drain on limited resources (Hiers and Ferguson 2002). They were also fixed into social parameters of illegality and commodification, “human cargo”, “shipload”, “boatload” (Hiers and Ferguson 2002).

Many of these initial claims were quietly problematized during the hearing process, when many, though of course only a minority, of the migrants were granted refugee status. One of the refugees, Lin Juen Li, presented identification papers and a certificate for forced abortion, generally sufficient documentation on which to base a refugee claim, though she was still incarcerated and not granted the normal freedom for refugee applicants, on the basis of her already illegal entry (Hiers and Greenberg 2002).

Of course, it was not the truth of refugee claims that was interesting to the media. What was more significant and hence the tie-in to the discursive crisis, was not the problematization of the refugees, but of the refugee system. Soon after the arrival of the first boat, newspapers were mocking the “absurdity” of an immigration law that allows people to “bypass the immigration queue and claim legal entitlement to refugee status” (Ferguson 2000). Of course, that is exactly what asylum constitutes. Politicians were engaging in the debate arguing for “reforms” to the immigration system that would make it harder to bypass the traditional refugee process. Despite the average 30,000 asylum claims that are filed in Canada each year, a few hundred Fujianese migrants coming the unlikely way by boat had succeeded in creating political capital for greater strengthening of the measures which would keep asylum seekers from making claims in Canada.

Deflection and Rejection at the Heart of the Refugee Discourse

The key set of tools that Canadian policy makers have to limit refugees and attempt to return to a controlled state of traditional refugee resettlement selection are called deflectionary measures. In 2003, the Fraser Institute, Canada's largest conservative think-tank, published a paper that has since been echoed in many of the policy debates, arguing for a "realist" approach to refugee deflection (Gallagher 2003). By "realist", Gallagher is actually referring to an approach to refugee policy that favors sovereignty over humanitarian values. Just as with the media's response to the Boat People, the framing of the issue centres around delegitimizing refugee claims by appealing to concern for the "rule of law" and insinuating that "gatecrashers" actually disadvantage a backlog of legitimate claims. For believers of the deflectionary approach, to evade deflection is itself a delegitimization of the reasons for becoming migrants.

Among his many recommendations about strengthening deflectionary measures themselves, Gallagher argued that Parliament should find ways to overrule the Singh decision and deport all of the gatecrashers. Within the broader discourse, the Singh case had represented the court's extreme humanitarian position, which in turn influenced consecutive governments to respond by using deflectionary measures to strengthen Canada's sovereignty. What were these deflectionary measures? Canada was following tardily behind the lead of other Western countries at the time, notably those in Western Europe. Western Europe, unlike Canada, is geographical well-situated to receive many migrants, with it's greater proximity to the large refugee producing zones in Africa, the Middle East and Eastern Europe.

The most effective deflectionary measures currently employed by the government centre around visa restrictions and the safe third-country rule. The safe third country rule states that a refugee cannot arrive in one "safe country", transit to another and then claim refugee status there. It is primarily an invention of European policy makers as a response to the great numbers of refugees attempting to claim status in England, France and Germany after first arriving in one of the countries on their border, particularly Italy and Spain. If overly simplistic, the rule attempts to narrowly define a refugee as someone incapable of having agency, by limiting them to the very first "safe third country" which they can arrive in. In 2004, Canada and the United States entered into a safe-third country agreement, echoing the trends in Europe and the recommendations of right wing policy groups like the Fraser Institute. Audrey Macklin writes of the U.S.-Canada safe-third country treaty: “Will it radically change the numbers of refugees in Canada? Probably not. They will simply be known by another name: illegals” (Macklin 2004).

Visa regulations are far more powerful, by allowing the government to more strongly control the number of refugees from a particular country. In the late 1990s, the Canada quickly became a target for refugees belonging to the Roma minority, a persecuted group in several Eastern European countries, particularly Hungary and the Czech Republic. In face of an overwhelming number of claims, most of which were decided in favor of the Roma refugees, Canada quickly placed stringent visa restrictions on both countries and Roma who wished to flee to Canada found that they needed to now apply at the Canadian embassy and fit their claims within the confines of refugee acceptance quotas and a higher burden of proof. Tied to the idea of visa regulations is the notion that some countries are safe and others are dangerous. This notion is clearly expressed in the latest set of reforms to immigration proposed by Jason Kenney. They favor the creation of “safe country lists”1, essentially, a list of places which the Canadian government will consider to be incapable of creating refugees2. While a notional application of “safe country” classifications are observed in previous studies of the IRB (Rousseau et. al 2002)(Kirmayer 2003), this would codify the process within the adjudication process.

The discourses of legal/illegal and migrant/refugee are at the heart of deflectionary measures. If asylum seekers are also labelled as “illegal migrants”, which frankly they are, than the legality of their refugee claim and the illegality of their entry form a deep contradiction for state actors to deal with (Macklin 2004). Instead of addressing this issue and focusing on the refugee claim, deflection seeks to focus on the illegality of entry. Visas, border screening, safe-third country treaties all seek turn the agency-expressing asylum seeker into an illegal migrant (Macklin 2004). And they succeed handily. These measures birth the smugglers who brought the Boat People to Canada, charging exorbitant fees and often tied to trafficking in slave labor and forced prostitution.
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