Bill gives minister extra powers on smuggling

Posted by admin on Oct 21st, 2010

Thu Oct 21, 10:15 PM, By Heather Scoffield, The Canadian Press

OTTAWA – The federal Tories want the power to declare a “human smuggling event” that would impose harsh conditions on asylum-seekers who show up on Canada’s shores and borders. In a bill tabled Thursday, the government proposes giving the federal minister of public safety the power to designate groups of migrants as “irregular,” and treat them differently from other refugee claimants. But an immediate outcry from opposition parties and refugee advocates, as well as talk of a Charter of Rights challenge, put the passage of the legislation in doubt without substantial changes.

Critics say the measures amount to a power grab by the minister that would treat refugee claimants as criminals, but would do little to stop smugglers.

“Measures keeping some refugees longer in detention, denying them family reunification and restricting their freedom of movement are likely in violation of the Canadian Charter and of international human-rights obligations,” said Wanda Yamamoto, president of the Canadian Council for Refugees.

“People who are forced to flee for their lives need to be offered asylum and a warm welcome, not punished.”

The government was bracing for the onslaught of criticism.

“Are these measures tough? Yes, undoubtedly, because in order to make human smugglers and fraudsters think twice, they have to be,” Public Safety Minister Vic Toews said at a Vancouver news conference.

“But they are also fair. Fair to those who legitimately and legally wait or have waited in line for a better life in Canada, and fair for all Canadians.”

Nothing in the bill would see Canadian authorities sending asylum-seekers back to a dangerous situation, and Canada remains committed to helping genuine refugees, said Immigration Minister Jason Kenney.

Under the new bill, the public safety minister would declare a “human smuggling event” if he thinks investigators need more time to determine who they are dealing with, and if he suspects organized crime is involved.

Once the minister makes such a declaration, the government would be able to put the “irregular” asylum-seekers on probation for five years, preventing them from leaving the country or applying to bring over their families.

Their benefits would be curtailed, they could spend up to a year in detention, and would not be able to apply for permanent residence for five years.

The bill would also impose stiffer penalties on human smugglers — or anyone with a knowledge of, or even a suspicion of, human smuggling.

Anyone linked to organized crime caught smuggling 50 or more people, and putting their lives in danger, would face an automatic sentence of at least 10 years.

And ship owners and operators would face stricter rules and stiff fines for human smuggling activity.

“This is a broad and wide-ranging approach to combating human smuggling containing measures to firmly and decisively deal with those who consider testing Canada’s resolve on this matter,” said Toews.

He called human smuggling “a despicable crime that recklessly endangers human lives” and said the new rules are a necessity.

The bill was the government’s promised response to a ship of 500 Tamil migrants that showed up in Vancouver in August. It was the second such ship in less than a year. Government sources have warned that yet another ship is preparing to head this way.

The fear is that migrant ships are harbouring not only legitimate refugees looking for a safe place, but also economic migrants hoping to jump the long immigration queue to get into Canada, as well as terrorists and criminals.

And the government believes that if it didn’t send a strong message to the world, Canada would become a destination of choice for dangerous people on the run.

By putting migrants in detention for up to a year, authorities will have time to track down identification and assess risk, and then deport unsavoury migrants right away, officials said.

Thursday’s package was the result of much back-and-forth inside government.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper was not satisfied with a preliminary set of proposals, obtained last month by The Canadian Press, that would have allowed the designation of “mass arrivals” and extended jail terms to 60 days.

He asked officials to present tougher options — so they added the one-year detention and the probation period for asylum seekers to their list.

“We have huge concerns about those provisions,” said Liberal immigration critic Justin Trudeau.

“That’s why we’re going to have to look at this really closely, and talk with some human-rights experts and Charter experts and look at our international obligations.”

But at least one former skeptic of the government’s ability to take effective action against human smuggling was encouraged by the bill.

Former ambassador James Bissett, now working with the Centre for Immigration Policy Reform, said he doubts the mandatory minimum sentences will do much to deter well-organized human smugglers.

But he said the five-year probation period that curtails benefits, travel and application for permanent residence will send a strong message.

“This may appear on the surface not to be very fair, but it’s the only deterrent in the bill,” he said.

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