Chinese Economic Refugees Suffer Detention and Abuse

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This past summer, 591 Chinese migrants from the province of Fujian landed on the coast of British Columbia. Working families fleeing economic turmoil in China, they had spent months at sea in the unsanitary cargo bays of four decrepit freighters. For the privilege of crossing the Pacific in these modern-day slave ships, they had agreed to work off payments of $40,000 each to the “snakeheads” who smuggled them in.

Abuse provokes hunger strikes. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police were ready and waiting for the newcomers, whom they seized, strip-searched, handcuffed, and put in hoods. The majority of the immigrants were then detained in tents in makeshift concentration camps, where they were verbally and sometimes physically harassed.

As winter approached, the federal government moved the Fujians to prisons across B.C. They have been denied sufficient legal counsel, adequate interpreter services, and guarantees of hearing dates to determine their legal status.

On November 6, 40 refugee women at a jail in the city of Burnaby launched a hunger strike to protest their abysmal treatment. Within days, most of the other imprisoned immigrants followed suit.

Organising against media slurs. The racist treatment of immigrants by the Liberal Party government is supported by the rightwing Reform Party, ultraright groups, and the corporate media. All summer, the national press fanned lynch-mob sentiment with headlines shouting “Alien Invasion” and “Go Home.” Stories described the migrants as “illegals,” “criminals,” and a “welfare burden.”

Immigrant rights activists mobilised in response. The Vancouver Association of Chinese Canadians led a campaign insisting that editors drop the hysterical tone and derogatory characterisations, and immigrant and Canadian-born women in Vancouver together formed a group called DARE (Direct action Against Refugee Exploitation). DARE has held press conferences and rallies to educate about Asian migrants and support the hunger strikers.

A history of exploitation and hostility. The reason for official antagonism toward the Fujians is simple: Canada’s immigration policies are geared to the shifting economic and political needs of big business.

In the 1800s, when industrialists needed cheap labour to connect the country by rail, the government opened the door to China’s impoverished masses. Then, when the dangerous project was completed and immigrant men tried to bring their families here, business and the press provoked anti-Chinese race riots and the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed.

Today, Immigration Canada is begging for people. Canada’s native-born population is shrinking, and the government has set a target of 225,000 new immigrants per year.

Nevertheless, in 1998 only 180,000 migrants were allowed in — even though 400,000 applicants wait in line.

This is because war and economic disaster have created a planet teeming with refugees; countries like Canada, the U.S., and Australia fear an overwhelming flood of destitute, potentially rebellious migrants. So they encourage the immigration of white Europeans and the financially well-off, while denying entrance to those in need.

Yet it is these same advanced capitalist countries that are responsible for the creation of these legions of refugees — through military campaigns against countries like Yugoslavia and Iraq and economic policies wreaking havoc all over the developing world.

China, for example, faces incredible coercion by the capitalist world to move to a market economy. This pressure has resulted in the establishment of free trade zones where more than 18 million people now work as cheap labour for giant retailers including Wal-Mart, Kmart, Nike, and Ralph Lauren.

At the same time, the course toward a market economy has resulted in massive closures of socially necessary industries deemed “unprofitable.” An estimated 200 million Chinese are unemployed — in stark contrast to the days when China’s socialised economy guaranteed a job for nearly every inhabitant.

Now, the same capitalist countries that are in large part responsible for China’s economic crisis are spurning the refugees the crisis has produced.

Open the borders! While workers like the Fujians who cross borders in a life-and-death search for better opportunities are persecuted, the free movement of corporations is ensured by trade agreements and agencies such as NAFTA and the World Trade Organization. This double standard has got to be destroyed.

One step in this direction has been taken by DARE and the B.C. New Democratic Party (NDP) Socialist Caucus, who call for the official definition of “refugees” to include those who suffer not only political persecution, but also economic oppression.

But more is needed: completely open borders, allowing newcomers to enjoy the same rights and privileges as longtime residents.

Competition among workers of different nations for decent jobs is not an excuse for keeping borders fortified. There is no good reason, setting aside the greed of the bosses, for decent jobs to be scarce! If the hours of the workweek were reduced, with no cut in pay, everyone could have a job.

If the NDP and immigrant activists are going to have any effect on the system, they must be bold. Open borders and full employment through a shortening of the workweek are the kinds of demands they need to push. Let’s set a persuasive example in Canada for working people everywhere to follow!

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