Canada’s public safety minister says illegal migrants have hardened Canadians’ attitudes towards refugees entering the country.
Vic Toews said he’s concerned that illegal migrants are undermining the usual welcome Canadians give to legitimate refugees.
“Certainly the polling after the arrival of the Sun Sea indicated a serious drop in the support to our immigration and refugee system,” Toews told reporters Wednesday.
He became terse when challenged that his own statements may be fuelling intolerance with his claims that many of the migrants aboard the latest ship to come to Canada were connected to the terrorist group Tamil Tigers, or LTTE.
“There is significant influence of the LTTE in these human smuggling operations and we are very concerned about that,” Toews said.
“If you can provide me with a list of those who are LTTE and those who are not, I’ll certainly consider that,” he told a reporter.
Last year, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney called the Tamil refugee claimants queue jumpers who were taking up space and resources in the system that should be focused on those who were lawfully waiting their turn to come to Canada.
Almost 500 Tamil migrants arrived in B.C. waters on the freighter MV Sun Sea last August.
That was less than a year after the MV Ocean Lady showed up on British Columbia’s northern coast with 76 illegal refugee claimants on board.
Toews said Canadian attitudes will change only if opposition parties support the government’s legislation to prevent human smuggling.
All 73 migrants from the Ocean Lady were released within a few months after claiming refugee status, but the federal government is disputing the release of many refugee claimants on the Sun Sea.
The Immigration and Refugee Board has ordered the release of 245 of the 380 adult men on board that ship.
Of the 62 women, 12 remain in detention.
Toews’ department has asked for a judicial review of 115 release orders for the men, slowing down their freedom.
A board spokeswoman said the Canada Border Services Agency has referred the cases of 15 men who were on the ship to the Immigration and Refugee Board’s admissibility hearings over allegations of either terrorism or criminality.
Toews said human smuggling is a growing problem, but he couldn’t give figures — and neither could the official he referred reporters to in order to get those figures.
Board statistics show refugee claims for 2010 decreased from the year before, and the 23,956 finalized refugee claims last year were well below the nine-year high of 43,260 claimants in 2003.
The board spokeswoman, who didn’t want to be named, said the majority of the refugee claimants come into Canada illegally.
Toews said the government isn’t interested in interfering with the rights of legitimate citizens to come to Canada.
“Our legislation does not prohibit refugees simply because you’ve arrived in Canada through irregular means. If you can demonstrate that you’re a refugee, even though the mode of entering Canada was illegal, that is not a bar.”
Toews’ statements came on the eve of the unveiling of a memorial in Halifax for the more than 900 Jewish refugees turned away from Canadian waters in 1939.
The luxury liner MS St. Louis was forced to sail back to Europe, where about 250 of its passengers later died in the Holocaust.
British Columbia’s Attorney General Barry Penner said the migrants have been costly for the province.
He said the federal government has offered $10 million to help with those costs.