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Detailed story about refugees escaping from civil war in Sri Lanka.

The Boat People - Sharon Bala

The Boat People, Sharon Bala, author

The author states that this novel was inspired by true events. Boats carrying large numbers of Tamil asylum seeking refugees, from Sri Lanka, arrived in British Columbia in 2009 and 2010.  I did look up the event and found that the refugees said they were fleeing the terror and violence of the Sri Lankan Civil War. Although the author does not discuss this aspect of the mass departure, except possibly in a cursory fashion, these events threatened to overwhelm the Canadian resources and forced the politicians to begin to rethink their open door policy which was making them a target for asylum seekers. The author, instead, stresses the aftermath of their arrival in which all of the refugees were detained, arrested, questioned and imprisoned for lengthy periods of time to await the adjudication of their cases, often with untrained and inexperienced judges. Would they be allowed to stay or would they be deported which most refugees believed was a death sentence? Still, I kept thinking, at least these boats weren’t turned back like the St. Louis was forced to do, during WWII. It was sent back to Europe where the Nazis possibly awaited them. At least the Sri Lankans still had hope. The Jews had despair.

In the novel, the Canadian government feared that there were human smugglers among the refugees, and that there might even be escaping terrorists hidden within the group that truly was in need of asylum. This situation is eerily similar to the current problems facing the United States today, with illegal immigrants attempting to gain asylum by sneaking into the country rather than by going in through the front door to be legally processed. Admittedly, that process is lengthy, but law-abiding citizens are penalized by those who cut the line strictly for financial advantage. The politicians play to the emotional side of their supporters, using the illegal immigration issue as a pawn, either for or against absorbing them. Those for open borders want to ignore the financial cost and security concerns. Those against illegal immigration want to stress the danger of the stranger, which can be real. All arguments have an element of truth. Unfortunately, often, emotions rather than common sense rule the day. The squeaky wheel gets the oil and attention, often unwarranted and with dangerous implications. Social media fans the flames of unrest.

The novel stresses the reasons that people seek asylum. The Sri Lankan refugees were not seeking financial benefit, although it could become a byproduct of asylum; they were seeking security from the horrors taking place in their own country, a country they once loved and would prefer to have remained in, if they were not systematically being kidnapped or attacked and murdered. The novel illuminates the lengths to which people will go to save themselves and/or their families. Often, they broke the law, cheated each other and lied when they never would have done so before.

The cast of characters the author describes is very diverse and presents many sides of the immigration issue, even the internment of the Japanese and other Sri Lankan conflicts are front and center. Oddly, though, in the context of WWII, she does not even mention the plight of the Jews. Arguably, she designed her characters to include certain backgrounds, subjects and not others. They were all developed well, illustrating just how they formed their opinions about immigration and its possible solutions. Bias was a major theme.

Grace, of Japanese descent, whose family was interned during WWII, was politically appointed by Fred, a photo op loving politician who seemed to believe he could influence her decisions. She was a judge who adjudicated some of the refugee cases. She was more disposed against the immigrants, at first, as she was influenced by his opinions. Priya, whose family was from Sri Lanka, was an intern, preparing for a job in corporate America when she was sidelined into working for Gigovaz, the lawyer who was unconditionally advocating for the refugees. She was not happy about the assignment as it took her off her career path, and she did not identify with the Tamil culture, nor did she speak the language. Charlita was a journalist who spoke the language of the Tamils and was eager to absorb them all, giving them the benefit of the doubt. Singh, who represented the Canada Border Service Agency, basically started with the assumption that they were all guilty of something. The investigatory process was long and tedious, with decisions often made according to the bias of the decision maker. The people in the system were all overworked, easily frustrated and exhausted.

I thought that the author presented all sides and all aspects of the immigration problem, including housing, well-being, feeding and education. Children were provided with safe spaces. Adults were interviewed. Papers, where they existed, were checked. The decisions were affected by politics, emotion and public opinion, all of which should, logically, be excluded from the process. The issue really concerns need and legality. Judgment should, ideally, be unbiased, but often it is not. More often, politics and social media seek to unfairly and unjustly affect the outcome, and those with an agenda proceed based on their raw emotion and mob mentality which is fanned by politicians who exploit those very sentiments.

So, the two parallel stories will tear at the reader’s heartstrings. One story takes place in Sri Lanka and is about a father, Mahindan, and his 5 year old son as they flee from a nightmare existence in their homeland which has already robbed them of their relatives and home. The other is about a father and son, in Canada, now separated by a bureaucracy and a system which has buried him in the morass of paper and opinion associated with his need for asylum. Mahindan, therefore, is still a captive, albeit in a far different and far better situation than he was in Sri Lanka. He is fed, clothed, educated and even entertained, for most of his confinement. There are no bombs falling. His son is in a wonderful, rather ideal foster home, becoming a Canadian, but they miss each other. He realizes that the gap between them widens while they are apart, but their love for each other is never diminished. Observers will want the father and son reunited quickly; they will want to rush to judgment. They will smart at the slowness of the process which is truly incapable of discerning fact from fiction. Are their papers genuine? What if someone has no papers and no history? The system is truly incapable of moving more quickly with such great numbers of immigrants and so many unknowns.

Of course, also, Mahindan is portrayed as a very worthy addition to Canadian society. He has a skill; he was raised in moderate comfort. He is educated and well-mannered. He is trying to assimilate into the Canadian culture and learn the language. He is the idealized immigrant, simply a victim of circumstances beyond his control who deserves asylum. In this book, the characters, admirably, really do a lot of introspection to understand the plight of the immigrant and themselves They attempt to thresh out the problems in order to solve them. The advocates are willing to put their own skin in the game and take a sincere, personal interest in their clients.

The subject is current; the problems are real; the system is flawed. Desperate situations make people do desperate things. Sometimes, under duress, our judgment is flawed. In the end, however, most people try to do what is best for their country and the immigrant, impartially and compassionately

Immigration has become a convenient flashpoint to create unrest and anger and to shine a spotlight on a problem with no easy solution in order to score political points. I see one major byproduct of the immigration issue that bothers me most. Often, those that flee their own country because of injustice then seek to recreate it with its warts and foibles in their new homeland, as we in America are witnessing with the growth of gangs like MS13 and efforts to eliminate our borders and install socialism in place of capitalism. 

I enjoyed the book, I learned a lot from the insights of the author, but I believe she painted a far too idealistic image of the immigrant, perhaps to advance her own political agenda. I am sure she did, now that I checked her web page. She accused America of kidnapping children and posted a picture that is a dishonest representation of a crying child separated from her mother at the border. The child and her mother are together and were never separated, according to the child’s father. The picture was cherry picked and posted by a journalist before it was vetted, obviously to promote an anti-Trump agenda.