Last October, Conservatives introduced Bill C-49, ostensibly meant to target human traffickers who “abuse Canada’s immigration system.” The bill, if passed, would allow the federal Minister of Public Safety to designate certain vessels bringing migrants to the country as “mass arrivals.” Whether the migrants involved are refugee claimants or other immigrants, Bill C-49 would allow for automatic detention of up to a year to allow the government to evaluate and process the claims. While human trafficking is a problem, this bill does not address the issue so much as it incriminates refugees based on their mode of arrival, ultimately punishing both smugglers and passengers. This true aim is masked by Conservative rhetoric which seeks conflate the difference between immigrants and refugees, thereby criminalizing and further restricting refugees seeking asylum.
Though seemingly proposing to keep Canada’s immigration policy equitable and fair, Bill C-49, at it’s heart, is confused. By addressing all human trafficking with the same measures, it vitiates any and all distinction between refugees and immigrants. The differences are vital – refugees arrive here fleeing real and imminent danger, while immigrants apply from their home countries and are evaluated based on education, employment, and a host of other criteria. Whatever one’s position on immigration policy, the fact that Bill C-49 criminalizes refugees is huge cause for concern. There may be a queue for immigrants, but there isn’t for refugees, and nor should there be.
One of the primary reasons asylum seekers turn to smugglers is that the government makes it exceptionally difficult to arrive in Canada as a refugee. The government hand-picks around 8,000 pre-approved refugees a year – for everyone else, getting approved for a visitor visa to make it to Canada can be a challenge if one aims to claim refugee status once here. Given this fact, it’s unfortunate, but also inevitable, that a handful of refugees resort to smugglers as they flee harmful political and economic conditions in their home countries. If the government really wants to address human smuggling, it should make it easier, not harder, for those in crisis to arrive in Canada.
When public safety minister Vic Toews announced Bill C-49 last October, he held his press conference in front of the Ocean Lady, a ship intercepted off the coast of British Columbia in October 2009 carrying 76 Tamils fleeing the aftereffects of war in Sri Lanka. From the beginning, the Tories have used Bill C-49 as a way to score political points, especially among immigrant communities who feel they have come here through “legitimate means.”
Even after all three opposition parties promised to vote against the bill in Parliament, the Harper government continued to play up the necessity of its measures. At this point, there’s no chance of the proposals being enacted, but it has created the opportunity for our government to label the Liberals, Bloc, and NDP as soft on human smuggling and “queue jumping,” even though that is equivocally not their stance.
Bill C-49 may have no chance of becoming law, but as Liberal MP and immigration critic Justin Trudeau put it, it’s not stopping the Tories from “playing politics on the backs of some of the most vulnerable people in the world.”