Asian Boat People: A Canadian Crisis? Part 1

Part one 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.


As a 12 year old boy in August of 1999, my friends and I found our normal space of adventure in the hills and scrub outside CFB Esquimalt filled with activity. Barbed wire rose up around the military gym and under the watchful gaze of heavily armed sentries, emaciated figures walked around the edges of the building. We wondered whether or not they were criminals, but then, why were they not in the normal jail? At home, my parents told us that they were refugees fleeing their own country of China who had tried to illegally enter Canada and been caught. Meanwhile, in the Canadian press, the "Chinese Boat People", as they came to be called, were being portrayed as invaders and interlopers. In the year that followed of proceedings and much hand-wringing in Ottawa, a minority of the boat people were recognized as genuine refugees and the rest were deported back to China.

That some of the boat people were recognized as genuine refugees is crucial. A reactionary discourse sprang up in response to Canada's relatively lenient policy, exhibited from everyone from editorialists to cabinet ministers, which framed this category of refugees who had evaded the deflectionary measures as "gatecrashers" or "bogus claimants"1. The reactionary rhetoric that is cast into the public sphere seeks to disqualify refugees who express their agency by avoiding the waiting-lines and systemic barriers that prevent their access to the Canadian refugee system and enter the country illegally. The aim of this paper is to show how “interlopers” like the Chinese Boat People reveal and problematize the discourse of governmentality in which refugee claimants who evade the state's deflectionary measures are framed as bogus or “economic migrants”. Audrey Macklin(2004) refers to this discourse as “the erosion of the idea that people who seek asylum may actually be refugees” .

This paper was inspired by reading Laurence Kirmayer's critical study of Canadian Immigration and Refugee Boards “Failures of Imagination: the refugee's narrative in psychiatry.” (2003) In that study, Kirmayer shows how refugee boards fail in their efforts to grasp the trauma that displaced peoples face and work to minimize and discredit the narratives of refugee applicants. Building on that study, another team of McGill researchers made a comprehensive study of how the Immigration and Refugee Boards seek to undermine the claims of refugees (Rousseau et al 2002) (Rousseau and Foxen 2005). According to Citizenship and Immigration Canada, 58% of refugee claims are unfounded2, a claim that the work of the McGill researchers casts serious doubt on. I argue that the efforts of the system to disqualify and undermine the claims of refugees is not only, as the authors of these studies claim, simply a result of poor intercultural skills and difficulty dealing with trauma, but the result of a discourse of rejection which seeks to disqualify certain kinds of refugees playing itself out on a bureaucratic level.

The Making of a “Model Refugee”

This paper draws heavily on Foucault's concept of governmentality, as a “practice of politics that acts on action”, in which certain forms of knowledge that aim to elicit certain skills and attitudes are promoted towards a population in order to “achieve effects beneficial for an individual, a collectivity and a state” (Rudnyckyj 2004). Governmentality is a key concept in the study of refugees, because it is a force that not only attempts to shape the behavior of refugees but of all the actors, including bureaucrats. Further on in this paper, I will mention in brief several ways in which discourses of governmentality are created and maintained. Those are discursive crises and institutional fields. Discursive crises are moments of crisis in which the state is able to use the discourse to expand and legitimize its power (Hiers and Greenberg 2002). Institutional fields simply refer to the breadth in which a discourse can be transmitted, in this case, how the discourse of refugee acceptance is transmitted from the highest levels of Canadian government, through the bureaucracy, mass media and citizenry (Hardy and Philips 1999).

In Discipline and Punish, Foucault discusses the “docile body” and the “model citizen”, a passive-receptive state of acceptance of authority which governments would prefer to shape their citizens towards (Foucault 1984). Foucault argues that in the 18th Century, the docile bodies that made up modern armies were not just “an ever-threatening sword, but also [because it was] a technique and a body of knowledge that could project their schema over the social body” (Foucault 1984). I argue that the Canadian state seeks to shape it's own “model refugee”, a docile body which is passively chosen and implanted into a process, not of military training, but of refugee screening. In this process, the State has the power to limit the number of refugees whom it accepts each year and the power to pick refugees based on criteria other than the mere fact of their displacement. Following Foucault's example, I will attempt to demonstrate the historical evolution of the model refugee and briefly outline how the Boat People incidents problematized this idea of the model refugee.

The model refugee is a modern, post-war invention. At the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, the United Nations agreed upon definitions for refugeehood and set-up provisions for “international co-operation in the field of asylum and resettlement”3. A refugee was defined as a person who, due to a “well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.” Beyond such abstract measures in international law, the development of refugees as a group began to only emerge further throughout the following 60 years. As formal citizenship and border control developed to great lengths in Western countries at the second half of the 20th Century, displaced persons found themselves increasingly channeled through formal relocation programs and camps, rather than simply crossing a border and starting a new life. This quickly became the “traditional” view of a model refugee: waiting in refugee camps, usually along the border with the country from which they fled, stateless, agency-less, and desperate for rescue.

In 1976, Canada created the Immigration and Refugee Act, which for the first time delineated between different kinds of migrants to Canada, following the UN Convention's definition of refugees. Under the Immigration and Refugee Act, now called the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act of 2001, refugees can apply for asylum to Canadian visa officers abroad. More typically however, this process is facilitated by humanitarian organizations, host organizations in Canada and the United Nations High Commission on Refugees. Ultimately, refugees are chosen by visa officers from the pool of candidates provided by the UNHCR, a strictly limited resource.

In a recent press release, announcing immigration reforms, Jason Kenney, the Minister for Citizenship and Immigration, stressed the need to return to this traditional mode of refugee selection and promised $54 million for relocation programs. Kenney announced that, “we know that we can’t help everyone. But what we can do is introduce balanced reforms to our refugee system that will allow us to expand our refugee resettlement programs to provide protection to more people4.” In typical years, Canada accepts around 10 000 to 12 000 refugees through formal relocation programs. By contrast, in 2008, there were 37 000 asylum claims filed inside Canada's borders5. Even with a highly questionable acceptance rate of 58%, refugees are far more likely to succeed in a claim by going to the country they want to relocate to, rather than waiting in a camp.

Nonetheless, governments would prefer to do the selection themselves, and critics of “gatecrashers” often point to the programs for selection and sponsorship of refugees (Millbank 1999). In reality, these programs are inconsequential. Refugees in these camps will simply become illegal migrants, and have their claims undermined by their illegality rather than waiting forever. With a vast global population of refugees, tiny programs, adopted by far too few countries and that strip refugees of their agency, will do next to nothing to stem the tide of illegal migration.

The Context of Chinese and Other Boat Migrants' Refugee Claims

Canada is situated geographically in the world in a rare position. It possesses only two land borders, both with the United States, and bordering territorial waters with France (St. Pierre and Miquelon) and Denmark (Greenland). None of these countries are known for producing refugees in any number (with the exception of American draft dodgers during the Vietnam War), and so it might seem odd that so many refugees would attempt to flee to Canada. But despite the characterization of the process of "becoming" a refugee that necessitates a lack of agency, refugees follow a variety of incentives that lead them to Canada.

Typically, countries bordering the kind of nation-states that produce the most refugees contain even further hardships for refugees who are considering fleeing to them. For example, one can easily see in the media images of refugees from Burma living in Thailand who are mostly restricted to refugee camps and are denied access to the ordinary venues of Thai life. In 2008, while traveling in Southern China, I met Tibetan dissidents had been extradited to China after trying to flee to Vietnam, where they were briefly detained. Vietnam and other states bordering China are wary of offending their powerful neighbor.

Often refugees have family or ethnic connections within Canada which further incentivize them to choose Canada. This is to say, the pejorative term "economic migrants"6 is in many ways a fair characterization of the vast majority of refugee claimants in Canada. Were they merely affected by "push"-factors and lacked any agency, they would simply go to the closest place outside of the reach of whatever factors had caused their displacement. Of course, one can hardly reasonably expect that a displaced person would prefer a permanent state of displacement in a refugee camp or as a non-citizen, over the generous refugee immigration programs of countries such as Canada. For refugees, Canada's welfare system, equal rights for non-citizens, and safety from economic or political violence make it a viable place of resettlement. It is a viable new home.

The Chinese Boat People's visit was just one of many such migrant entries directly into Canada in the 1990s that incited a public discourse about refugees from China, India and other Asian countries who arrived in Canada illegally and applied for refugee status. By simply arriving on Canadian shores, they were able to avoid the pre-screening measures of the overseas Customs and Immigration Canada, which manages refugee applications in Canadian embassies and consulates (under the current ministry system the responsible departments are called Citizenship and Immigration and Canadian Border Services Agency). Their ability to do so stemmed from the 1985 Supreme Court Singh Decision in which the court ruled that non-citizens were entitled to the same rights as Canadians if they were on Canadian soil, including a fair tribunal on their immigration status and the right of appeal to the legal system (Kernerman 2008). Singh was a landmark decision in Canadian history and sets Canada apart from most other countries, in which it is unusual for non-citizens to have all the same rights as citizens. It also led to Canada having the largest per capita number of refugee applicants, unlike most other Western states that deploy much stronger "deflectionary" measures to prevent "gatecrashers" from ever entering refugee tribunal systems (Gallagher 2003).

Ultimately, only a minority of the Chinese Boat People's claims were successful. The rest were deported back to China and the story wasn't followed from there, so there isn't really any opportunity to find out how the migrants were treated upon their return. Illegal Chinese migrants are in an especially precarious position, because of the hostile attitude their own government takes to those leaving China illegally. In general, Canada shares other countries' distrust for China's treatment of its own citizens.

The Chinese Boat People's arrival was hardly an isolated incident. The Singh Decision itself looked at the case of Sikh political dissidents who entered Canada's East Coast illegally by boat. An average of around 30,000 people make asylum claims in Canada each year, of which between 40% and 50% are accepted. In this last year, Canadians likely heard of Tamil Sri Lankan boat people also being detained after their boat was discovered off the West Coast. It would be expected that they would have a much more clear-cut set of refugee claims than Chinese boat people, being as they were fleeing the end of a decade-long civil war in which their side lost, and where 300,000 Tamils were still being held in interment camps. But nonetheless, they were treated with as much or more suspicion and contempt for their illegal entry than the Chinese Boat People of 1999. The Minister of Citizenship and Immigrantion, Jason Kenney, considered it to be an opportune time to lay out the goals of reform for the immigration system which later evolved into a reform package announced March 29th 2010: “We don't want to develop a reputation of having a two-tier immigration system - one tier for legal, law-abiding immigrants who patiently wait to come to the country, and a second tier who seek to come through the back door, typically through the asylum system, we need to do a much better job of shutting the back door of immigration for those who seek to abuse that asylum system."

Jump to Part Two!

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