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Extraordinarily Perverse

Canada’s decision to deport the 74-year old widow of assassinated Tamil parliamentarian Joseph Parajasingham on the grounds she is a member “by association” of the Liberation Tigers exemplifies the Kafkaesque logics of the country’s asylum policy as implemented by its Immigration and Refugee Board.

In Canada, as in many Western states, asylum and immigration policy has long been controversial and marked by heated political and public debates. These have intensified amid the insecurities since the global financial crisis, and border agencies in many Western states are under intense pressure to stem immigration – and not just from developing countries. However some of the recent decisions made, and the logics put forward for these, by the IRB stand out as especially perverse.

Canada’s tourism slogan is “Enter a world of extraordinary experiences.” For those seeking safety from persecution, it is exactly that. When 76 Tamils fleeing Sri Lanka’s repression sought asylum after arriving by ship in October 2009, the IRB issued warnings some might have “ties” to the Tamil Tigers. After a protracted and terrifying wait, all were released as not a shred of supporting evidence was found. Nonetheless the same warnings were loudly repeated when 490 more Tamils arrived in August 2010. The vast majority have also had to be released (and the remaining three dozen cases are being processed) as, once again, no evidence was found.

However, the IRB has grasped at all manner of straws in its efforts to exclude people, including the invocation of dubious experts allied with the Sri Lankan government and military. In instances reported in the Canadian media, one asylum seeker was deemed a member of terrorist organisation simply because she was wearing an ‘LTTE locket’ on her necklace. Another applicant was accused of being a member of the LTTE because he had been a mechanic servicing public buses in the LTTE-controlled Vanni – where over 300,000 Tamils were then resident. A third applicant, a former LTTE cadre, is being held even though he had left the organisation nearly a decade ago.

It is Canada’s decision this week to order the deportation of Mrs. Sugunanayake Joseph that stands out for its perversity. Her husband’s assassination, along with other prominent Tamil politicians, is one of the highest profile extra-judicial killings amongst the tens of thousands carried out by Sri Lanka’s Army and its associated paramilitaries. In 2005 Mr. Joseph Pararajasingham was attending Christmas Mass at St. Mary's church in government-controlled Batticaloa town when two gunmen walked in and opened fire, killing the MP and wounding eight others, including his wife, before calmly walking out. No one has been arrested for the execution, reinforcing the chilling message which it carried that was understood by all, including the international community engaged in Sri Lanka.

It was in recognition of that message, that the then Canadian government issued a visitor’s visa so his wife could flee to safety in Canada, where her son and daughter are citizens. Indeed, few people exemplify the UN refugee criterion of “a well founded fear of persecution” than Mrs. Joseph. However, in February this year, Canada’s Immigration and Refugee Board deemed her inadmissible, saying her role as a politician’s wife — supporting her late husband’s career and accompanying him to political events — amounted to membership in the LTTE, a designated terrorist organization in Canada. Her husband is, of course, also deemed to be a member of the LTTE.

The IRB’s justification is that Mr. Parajasingham’s party, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), was “associated” with the LTTE. This logic, it’s worth noting, is that of those who murdered him and several other TNA parliamentarians, party workers and supporters. Thus, in the IRB’s logic, the many journalists, political and civil society activists and ordinary people who have fled Sri Lanka are also members of the LTTE because they advocated Tamil self-determination and independence or, like the international community backing the Norwegian peace process, demanded Sri Lanka negotiate with the LTTE as the representatives of Tamil demands.

The extent to which the IRB’s decision - and by extension Canada’s implementation of its asylum policy - is divorced from reality is marked by two things: first, the growing international recognition of Sri Lanka’s murderous political repression of the Tamils, and, secondly, by international demands - most explicitly by the United States - that the Colombo government negotiate with the TNA to reach a political solution to Sri Lanka’s festering ethnopolitical crisis. Last month another TNA MP, S. Sritharan, narrowly escaped an assassination attempt.

A country’s immigration and asylum policy, as much as its others, are very much part of its international identity. Under the banner of excluding bogus asylum seekers and illegal immigrants, the IRB has chosen to interpret individual cases in distorted ways that violate not only the UN refugee convention, but the societal values of tolerance, support for human rights and justice that Canada, rhetorically at least, has been espousing. In doing so, it is making a mockery of, and serving to undermine, these principles both at home and abroad.