News  Federal anti-smuggling bill cracks down on asylum seekers

Legislation faces criticism for denying refugees rights and protections

More than eighty human rights and civil society groups across Canada have come out in force against an anti-smuggling bill proposed by the federal government, calling for the legislation to be defeated in an upcoming session of Parliament. The bill received its second reading in the House of Commons last week.

The Canadian Council for Refugees (CCR), a non-profit umbrella organization that has taken a lead in opposing the bill, has said that the legislation does not target smugglers, but rather the vast number of asylum-seekers who arrive in Canada with their aid.

Bill C-49 would make participation in “human trafficking events” a criminal offense. Individuals arriving in Canada by irregular means could be detained for up to one year without review, and denied permanent residency status for up to five years, even if recognized as a refugee by Canadian officials. Individuals would also be denied the right of appeal if their refugee claim were rejected.

Minister of Public Safety Vic Toews introduced the bill to the public in October last year, while standing in front of the Ocean Lady, a rusty freighter carrying hundreds of Sri Lankan asylum-seekers that docked in Vancouver last August. The migrants were held in a Vancouver jail for several months before being released and permitted to file refugee claims.

Jessica McDonald, media spokesperson for the Ministry of Public Safety told The Daily in an email that the bill “reduces the attraction of coming to Canada by way of an illegal human smuggling operation,” and would send a clear message to smugglers that “Canada will not tolerate your criminal activities.”

Liberal MP Justin Trudeau criticized the logic of Bill C-49 as a deterrent to smuggling, and accused the federal government of increasing the barriers facing legitimate refugees.

“[This bill] doesn’t fulfill any practical purpose of cracking down on illegal smuggling. It only aims to make the Conservatives look tough on crime, and anyone against this piece of crap legislation appears soft on human smuggling, which we are not,” said Trudeau.

“We have a process for refugees; they are evaluated by the IRB [Immigration and Refugee Board], and it is established whether they are legitimate…and anyone who is simply trying to immigrate to Canada for economic reasons gets sent back,” he added.

CCR Executive Rick Goldman viewed the bill as a direct attempt to crack down on the individuals seeking asylum in Canada.

“It is impossible for many people from refugee producing countries to get here through a legal method. So the vast majority have to use illegal methods at some point,” said Goldman.

“This is accepted by the U.N. High Commission as normal, and not normally held against refugees. So the government is really attacking something that is an accepted reality; that refugees need to have recourse to false documents in order to get to somewhere far from their country of origin,” he added.

According to Goldman, the proposed legislation is also a clear contravention of the U.N. Refugee Convention, which prohibits states from imposing penalties on the illegal entry of refugees facing a well-founded fear of persecution.

“The good refugees are those who wait 15 to 20 years in a camp, with only the hope that maybe one day they will be resettled. … But we also have an obligation towards the ones who come here. They are entitled to rights. They get to stay if they are real refugees, and that is our obligation under international law,” added Goldman.

More than 12,000 refugees were welcomed to Canada last year. As of December 31, however, 51,000 refugees claims remain pending before the IRB of Canada.

McDonald also stated that while Canada remained committed to providing a safe haven for legitimate refugees, the federal government would cut down on the abuse of the immigration system.

“Every sovereign country has a responsibility to protect its borders,” wrote McDonald. “Bill C-49 sends the message that it is unfair to those seeking to come to Canada through legitimate, legal means when others pay human smugglers to jump our immigration queue.”

However, according to Trudeau, effective legislation on this issue would target migrant transit countries, such as Thailand, and working with these states to increase their refugee acceptance rates and to crack down on trafficking companies, as well as with source countries to help move individuals facing threats of death and torture.

Goldman expressed dismay at the federal government’s characterization of asylum-seekers as “queue jumpers.”

“There is no queue for refugees. There is a queue for people who want to come here as skilled workers, but there is absolutely no queue for refugees,” he said.

Trudeau points out that this rhetoric was to rally electoral support among first-generation Canadians and immigrants by equating refugees to economic migrants.

“This is probably one of the most insidious elements of how they [the federal government] have decided to spin this bill. It is meant to make first-generation Canadians and immigrants turn against this bill [by saying] that a refugee is the same as an immigrant, and while new arrivals have to wait five or ten years to come to Canada, these new arrivals are jumping the queue,” added Trudeau.

Goldman also believed that the legislation is an attempt to shore up Conservative support in the run up to any future election. He drew attention to the fact that the federal government has continued to promote the legislation despite the fact that all three opposition parties have heavily criticized it.

“It’s dead in the water as a serious piece of legislation, so why continue to talk about it? They are still having press conferences, and photo ops, so it is really for electoral purposes,” added Goldman. “They continue to whip up anti-refugee hysteria in order to win election votes.”