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“A machine of shame” (updated)

Today, in Halifax, a memorial to the MS St. Louis was unveiled, in memory of the hundreds of Jewish refugees turned away from North American shores on the eve of the Holocaust. The MS St. Louis carried over 930 German Jews, seeking asylum and sanctuary from Nazi persecution. After being turned away from Cuba, the United States, and finally, Canada, the ship was forced to return to Europe, where about 250 of its passengers eventually died in concentration camps.

Today, in Vancouver, Public Safety Minister Vic Toews held a news conference to promote the Government’s Bill C-49, a piece of anti-refugee legislation seeking to penalize asylum seekers who attempt to enter Canada through so-called “irregular arrivals”. (By “irregular arrival”, the Government means “by boat”.) We here at the BCCLA National Security Blog don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that this Bill was proposed (in October 2010) as a direct response to the August 2010 arrival of the MV Sun Sea off the coast of British Columbia. The boat carried about 490 Tamil asylum seekers — men, women and children — from Sri Lanka, but to hear Minister Toews describe it, the boat carried 490 terrorists getting ready to set up shop in Canada, and was paving the way for hundreds more.

The juxtaposition of these two events begs obvious comparisons. The Halifax memorial is not simply about the refugees turned away by Canada in 1939. It is a reminder of the terrible consequences of a society’s failure to offer asylum and sanctuary to those fleeing persecution. It is a reminder of why, in the wake of the atrocities of World War II, the contemporary human rights regime was developed, and why the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its Optional Protocol have been adopted by over 140 nations. Refugee protection is often spoken of in terms of “international protection”, and for good reason. Refugees facing persecution in their countries of origin can only be safe from harm if the international community is willing to offer sanctuary and asylum.

Canada is a signatory to both the Convention and Optional Protocol. As such, it’s legally obligated to provide refuge to persons fleeing persecution. Legislation such as Bill C-49 and rhetoric suggesting that Canada needs to be less receptive to refugee claims in order to protect national security runs afoul of our international obligations and betrays Canada’s historical commitment to human rights.

(For further thoughts on Bill C-49, keep a lookout for the BCCLA’s upcoming position paper. We’ll post a link to it here when it becomes available.) Here’s our position paper.