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Don't jail the Sun Sea migrants, says advocate

The refugee-rights collective No One Is Illegal is decrying the Canadian government's decision to incarcerate the passengers of the MV Sun Sea when they arrive in B.C. this weekend.

Harsha Walia, a spokesperson for No One Is Illegal, said that the decision to jail the 200 to 500 Tamil migrants on their arrival is a poor response by the federal government.

"A lot of the response to this boat isn't really rooted in a legal response, it's rooted in a deliberately created hysteria, in a prejudgment and a stereotype of them as terrorists," she said.

The government will most likely place children from the boat into foster care while their guardians are in prison, Walia said.

The situation is very similar to one in October of last year, when the MV Ocean Lady brought approximately 75 Tamil migrants to B.C. All were incarcerated, but were released by January.

"[The Canadian Border Services Agency] were not able to substantiate anything that justified their ongoing detention," Walia said. "And in fact the judge admonished them for relying on [Rohan Gunaratna], a source that was closely connected to the Sri Lankan government."

But Gunaratna is the sole source being used to characterize the passengers on the Sun Sea as terrorists, Walia said.

"That's their only evidence right now, relying on this one discredited source," she said, "And certainly something like a label of terrorism is not something people should be taking lightly, but it seems like all the mainstream media is parroting it."

Walia said that Tamils in particular are a minority well-recognized as suffering human rights violations under the current Sri Lankan government.

"Canada itself actually has a really high rate of acceptance of Sri Lankans," she said. "In the past few years, it's been over 90 per cent. So there's really no reason to go through the same process that we went through in October."

Putting hundreds of migrants through the prison system is also very expensive, Walia added.

"What's frustrating is people are saying they're a burden on the system. But the reason it's a burden is because the government is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to incarcerate them."

Ultimately, Walia said, jailing the migrants accomplishes little besides stigmatizing refugees. And it's indicative of a worrying trend in the federal government's immigration policies, she said.

"The course that Canada is taking is increasingly anti-refugee under [Immigration and Multicultural Minister Jason] Kenney," she said, "And part of being able to justify having fewer and fewer refugees is starting to label them all potential terrorists."

Ryan Elias is completing a practicum at The Tyee.

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