In the summer of 1999, four ships carrying 599 Fujianese people arrived on the west coast of Canada. They survived a desperate and dangerous journey only for the Canadian Government to put them in prison. After numerous deportations, there are still about 40 of these people in Canadian prisons as of January 2001. They have been in jail for over a year and a half under mere suspicion of flight risk. About 24 people have been granted refugee status. Most people deported to China have been placed in Chinese prisons and fined.
It is worth remembering that these migrants may have been undocumented but they are not "illegal" in that they have mobility rights. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights recognizes everyone's right to leave any country and to seek asylum. It can be argued that it is not the migrants who are illegal, but the unjust laws that criminalize their freedom of movement. In considering people's rights, we need to keep in mind not only the civil and political rights that the West tends to privilege, but equally important social and economic rights as well.
As a local response to a global phenomenon, Direct Action Against Refugee Exploitation (DAARE) formed in Vancouver to support the rights of the Fujianese women, eleven of whom at the time of writing are still being held in the Burnaby Correctional Centre for Women (BCCW). In DAARE’s view, Immigration Canada's decision to detain all these people is based on a racialized group-profiling policy which violates basic human rights and ignores Canadian responsibility in the creation of the global economic and societal conditions which give rise to widespread migration.
In light of the Canadian government's plans to implement even more punitive immigration legislation, DAARE endorses the Coalition for a Just Immigration and Refugee Policy's "Position Paper on Bill C31." They call for humanitarian review and release for the remaining Fujianese people. This review would include a few released refugee claimants who are still in Canada, children, women who were past victims of family planning, people facing religious persecution and, of course, those who are still in prison after 18 months and who have never been charged with any crime. Suspicion of flight risk is not a valid reason to incarcerate people for such a long time.
Who Is a Migrant?
The lines between "voluntary" and "forced" migration are no longer adequate to explain the complexities of population movements today. Motives for forced displacement include political, economic, social and environmental factors. This spectrum runs from the immediate threats to life, safety and freedom due to war or persecution, to situations where economic conditions make the prospects of survival marginal and non-existent. (Moussa 2000).
Terms like "economic migrant" and "bogus refugee" have been used in the media to discredit migrants such as the Fujianese and to foster hostility against them. This scapegoating process oversimplifies the situation, for all refugees and all migrants are entitled to the basic respect due all human beings as enshrined in the UN Declaration of Human Rights. There can be multiple reasons for an individual to migrate—ranging from family reunification to economic pressures to personal survival; to fear of government corruption and of political persecution, to name just a few. The reduction of everything to merely the economic does not allow one to understand why migration is occurring and likely to increase in the future.
Most immigrants to Canada could also be described as economic migrants. Conrad Black is an economic migrant. The privileging of rich migrants over poor ones romanticizes globalization as corporate progress and ignores the immense human suffering it entails for the majority of the world's population as the gap between the wealthy and the poor rapidly increases.
Hundreds of years ago, when migrants came to this aboriginal territory we now call Canada, they came in order to survive—in short, they too were "economic migrants." Many of those migrants who came from Europe would not qualify to enter Canada today under its current immigration admissions guidelines. Indeed, over 50% of Canadians would not be able to independently immigrate to Canada given its current elitist restrictions.
One of the major reasons for an increase in migration is the destruction of rural economies in Asia and elsewhere in the world. Millions of people have been displaced by changes in agriculture that separate people from the land. These waves of internal migration also result in the movement of peoples across national borders in order to survive. Chinese provinces such as Fujian and Guangdong, whose people have a long history of overseas travel, are particularly common sources of out-migration.
In discussing migration, we need to be wary of how we can inadvertently reinforce the colonization of First Nations people unless we consciously work against that by actively supporting aboriginal self-determination. For example, some First Nations people have been accused of "smuggling" people across borders—this subjects them to the same process of criminalization which the migrants have experienced, and ignores the sovereign rights of First Nations people. We need ways of relating to one another which do not reenact domination, but which work in solidarity with First Nations' struggles. This requires an understanding of the ways in which racism, colonialism, classism, and other tactics through which "dividing and conquering" take place. For those of us who are first, second, third, fourth, fifth generation migrants to this land, our survival and liberation are intimately connected to that of aboriginal people.
History Repeating Itself?
The arrival of the Fujianese people met with a racist media hysteria reminiscent of earlier episodes of Canadian history. Front page newspaper headlines such as "Go Home" increased hostility against these people. In Victoria, people were offering to adopt the dog on one of the ships at the same time that they were calling to deport the Chinese. From the corporate media accounts of the situation, one would think that most Canadians did not care about the dangerous voyage these people had endured, a voyage during which two people from the second ship died.
Accusations that people were trying to enter the country "illegally" overlooked how historically, the Chinese, like other people of colour, have had to find ways to compensate for racist and classist biases in Canada's immigration system. For example, from 1960 to 1973, Canada granted amnesty to over 12,000 "paper sons," that is, people who had immigrated under names other than their own. The granting of "legal" status to the "paper sons" who arrived before 1960 finally recognized that Canada's legislation had unfairly excluded Chinese people for decades. From 1923 to 1947, Canada's Chinese Exclusion Act had basically prevented Chinese people from entering this country.
The xenophobic attitudes that gave rise to the Chinese Exclusion Act and the head tax occurred within a colonial context that privileged British migrants. Today, colonialism may no longer be as rhetorically attached to the British empire, but its patterns—particularly the globally inequitable distribution of wealth and resources—continue to accelerate through the mechanism of transnational corporations, for example. As Helene Moussa has pointed out, "the interconnections of globalisation with racist and colonialist ideology are only too clear when all evidence shows that globalisation '¼ legitimise[s] and sustain[s] an international system that tolerates an unbelievable divide not only between the North and the South but also inside them'" (2000). Moreover, according to the United Nations Development Programme, the income gap between people in the world's wealthiest nations and the poorest nations has shifted from 30:1 in 1960 to 60:1 in 1990 and to 74:1 in 1997. (Moussa 2000)
As capital or electronic money moves across borders faster than ever before in what some have called the casino economy (Mander and Goldsmith), change and instability are rapidly increasing for the majority of the world's population. People are justifiably anxious about their well-being in the face of growing transnational corporate power; however, "protecting" national borders through enforcement and detention of displaced people is a form of reactive, violent, and often racist, nationalism which scapegoats the vulnerable without truly addressing the root causes of instability and migration. In short, reactive nationalism is ineffective in safe-guarding people's survival. Asserting solidarity with those who are most immediately displaced and impoverished by globalization is strategically a better way to work towards our common survival. Substantive freedom requires equitable economic relations; that is, fairly shared wealth.
Canadian Response Abilities
The Canadian government should take responsibility for its role in creating the conditions that displace people and force them to migrate within their countries and across borders. As a major sponsor of efforts to privatize economies and undertake environmentally devastating projects such as hydro-electric dams, Canada has played a significant role in the creation of an unemployed "floating population" in China which is estimated to reach 200 million people this year. Punitive tactics will not stop the movement of people, who migrate to survive. According to Peter Kwong, "The well-publicized Chinese government's market reforms have practically eliminated all labor laws, labour benefits and protections. In the "free enterprise zones" workers live virtually on the factory floor, laboring fourteen hours a day for a mere two dollars—that is, about 20 cents an hour" (136). As Sunera Thobani has phrased it, "What makes it alright for us to buy a t-shirt on the streets of Vancouver for $3, which was made in China, then stand up all outraged as Canadian citizens when the woman who made that t-shirt tries to come here and live with us on a basis of equality?"
Canada should respond to the urgent situations which cause people to move—not only on the grounds upon which Convention refugees were defined in 1949 (race, religion, nationality, social group, political opinion) which continue to be valid—but also to strengthen Canada's system to include a contemporary understanding that all people have basic economic and environmental survival rights. Some migrants have lives that fit into the narrow definition of a UN Convention refugee and some may not. Those who do not fit this definition have nonetheless urgent needs that deserve attention.
The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives has pointed out that there are at least 18 million people working in 124 export zones in China. A living wage in China is estimated to be 87 cents per hour. Canadians benefit from these conditions of cheap labour, yet when the producers of these goods come to our shores, we hypocritically disavow any relationship with them. Responsibility in this context need not refer so much to some stern sense of duty, obligation or altruism as to a full "response"—intellectual, emotional, physical, and spiritual—that such a situation provokes in relations between those who "benefit"—materially at least—from such a system and those who do not.