HALIFAX, NOVA SCOTIA — When some 7,000 Kosovars needed to be airlifted out of camps that dotted the Yugoslavia-Albania border, Canada was one of the first countries to stand up and say that it would accept the refugees.
But the reception given last month to a group of 122 Chinese found in a listing cargo ship off the coast of Vancouver Island, British Columbia, was not so warm.
Vilified by politicians and the media, these refugees were described as the forerunners of an Asian "invasion." If Canada didn't act quickly, said Leon Benoit, the immigration critic for the opposition Reform Party, the country would be known as "the" soft touch of the world when it came to smuggling people.
The difference in the reception given these two groups of refugees speaks volumes about who does - and doesn't - get a welcome mat in a society known for the compassion shown to outsiders.
"When the Kosovars came, we saw them every day on TV, and the people could see that these people were refugees who needed help," says Francisco Rico-Martinez, the president of the Canadian Council for Refugees, which is based in Montreal and Toronto. "I'm not sure how 122 people can be an invasion. All we keep hearing is that these are economic migrants trying to jump the queue. We're not even hearing their stories. We all know that China is known as a human rights violator. Who knows what kind of conditions these people were living in before they got on that boat."
According to Lee Cohen, a lawyer based in Halifax, Nova Scotia, who works with refugees, the response to the Chinese is an overreaction. "We're getting fewer and fewer refugees, and the rules are a lot tougher. How the Chinese arrived contributed to this idea of an invasion - 122 people by boat. But that's not how most refugees get to Canada."
Mr. Cohen adds that Canada's image does not match what he has seen while working with refugees. "Canada has successfully manufactured a mythology about its 'welcomeness' to foreign nationals. But it's generally been the experience of the foreign nationals that I've worked with that once you actually have to deal with the system ... Canada is not welcoming at all."
Cohen says the situation has gotten worse in the past 10 years, especially under Prime Minister Jean Chrtien. "The prime minister is ... very business-oriented.... Canada may be open for business, but it's not open for humanitarian concerns," says Cohen.
There are signs, however, that Chrtien and his government are altering course. This past January, the government a report that suggested numerous changes to the current Immigration Act.
In a cabinet shuffle announced last week, Chrtien replaced Lucienne Robillard, who refugee advocates say too often turned important decisions over to bureaucrats, with Elinor Caplan. She is a Liberal member known as a social activist. "Having a minister from an area like Toronto that has so many immigrants is good," says Cohen. "It suggests progress."
Meanwhile, Mr. Rico-Martinez, the president of the refugees council, says the notion promoted by some that Canada has a refugee problem is "ridiculous." Last year Canada admitted about 25,000 refugees, about 0.3 percent of the world's refugees - a total that has remained constant for 10 years.
"The idea just goes against the evidence. Many people say it's too easy to get into Canada. But I wouldn't call spending 39 days crammed into a filthy cargo ship 'easy,' would you?"
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society