Before you judge asylum seekers, listen to their stories

OPINION: Nam Kiwanuka on what gets lost when we talk about the so-called migrant crisis
By Nam Kiwanuka - Published on Jul 27, 2018
In August 2010, the MV Sun Sea — a ship carrying 492 Tamil migrants — was intercepted by Canadian authorities in British Columbia. (Jonathan Hayward/CP)



Before Facebook, Twitter, Instagram — before the internet had even become a force — a woman from London, Ontario, galvanized her community to rescue an East African family they had never met. I use the word “rescued” because they saved our lives.

Sidney Tebbutt, whom I called Granny, had never spoken to us or seen a picture of us, and she had never been to our part of the world. She had no reason to involve herself. She had no reason to disrupt her life by sponsoring a single father of four, but she did.

If my father applied for refugee status now, I wonder if we would be accepted — whether a stranger would feel moved to help us or whether they would view us with suspicion.

This week, I spoke to Sharon Bala (see below), a first-time author, about her book, The Boat People — a fictional account of what happened after a ship carrying 492 Tamil migrants was intercepted by Canadian authorities in British Columbia in August 2010.

The novel tells the story of a single father, Mahindan, and his son, who flee together from Sri Lanka after the civil war only to be separated in Canada because authorities believe the father is a terrorist. Bala incorporates the points of view of the father, the father’s lawyer, and a third-generation Japanese Canadian adjudicator who must decide whether Mahindan and his son can stay in Canada.

This use of different perspectives reflects how complicated the situation is, how many issues have to be considered in order to maintain both the security of the country and the fairness of the immigration system.

These days, as a journalist and as a former refugee, I find it hard not to respond to the coverage of asylum seekers with frustration and sadness.

Politicians have been trying to sway public opinion against asylum seekers, and there is confusion about whether we’re facing a migration crisisand about whether the migrants in question are “illegal” or “irregular.” I worry that the stories of those seeking asylum risk becoming a political footnote.

There are certainly people who manipulate the system to circumvent due process, and laws are needed to maintain order. But think about what some of these asylum seekers have to go through to get to Canada. Many have to place their loved ones on an over-crowded boat with only the sea stretching out to the unknown.

Often the only thing they know for sure is that if they stay in their home country, they will die. What they’re running from is worse than what they’re running to. If you’ve never been in that situation — if you’re never experienced civil war, unrest, or persecution — you’re lucky. If you don’t know what it’s like to be woken up at night by the sounds of heavy artillery, to smell petrol as a neighbour’s home is burned to the ground while men with guns look on, laughing. To watch your father walk back into a burning building because your baby brother was left behind when everyone tried to escape after your home was bombed in the middle of the night.

If you’ve never experienced this, if you’ve never had to step over bullet-riddled bodies on your way to school, perhaps it’s understandable that you are fed up with refugees, migrants — these people who are trying to come into your country, to disrupt your familiar way of life.

How could you understand? You’ve never lived in a place where you’re afraid of those in charge because they are the same people who can decide whether you live or die. Who have the power to take your father away. Who, when you’re just a child, plan to use your body for profit because you have lighter skin and eyes. You are not seen as a child. You are disposable. Your life, and the lives of those around you, is cheap. No one but your loved ones will miss you — if they are still alive to mourn you.

Yet I still have to believe that if my father had applied for asylum in today’s Canada, we would be accepted. Without Canada, I would be nothing; I would be no one. If the fear of guns hadn’t killed me in my country of birth, being born a girl would have.



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