Although it's not yet clear whether the March 27 fatal capsizing of a yacht off the coast of Nova Scotia was a failed attempt to smuggle illegal immigrants into Canada, there is no doubt that human smuggling is a booming business and Canada a favoured destination for migrants and refugees of all kinds.

While most arrive in Canada legally, there are others who try to take shortcuts around the country's immigration system using human smugglers.

The United Nations estimates that human smuggling is currently one of the most profitable criminal activities worldwide.

It's hard to put numbers on the trade in illegal immigrants to Canada, but the RCMP says that between 1997 and 2002, smugglers assisted about 12 per cent of the 14,792 improperly documented migrants who were intercepted in Canada or en route to the country.

On average, about a quarter of a million immigrants have been admitted to Canada legally each year since 2006, according to figures from Citizenship and Immigration Canada. In 2011, 248,660 immigrants became permanent residents of Canada, down from 280,636 in 2010.

Legislative changes

The latest figures available from Citizenship and Immigration Canada show that 12,595 government-assisted and privately sponsored refugees made successful asylum claims in Canada in 2010.

"Canada's per-capita immigration rate remains one of the highest in the world," Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism Minister Jason Kenney said in a Feb. 16, 2012, statement.

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Authorities escort a Sri Lankan family off the MV Sun Sea, a cargo ship intercepted off the coast of B.C. in 2010 with 490 would-be refugee claimants aboard. (Andy Clark/Reuters)

But the government is also worried about the number of immigrants trying to do an end-run around the system, so it is updating the legislation that applies to newcomers to Canada.

Kenney made his statement at the introduction of a new bill, Protecting Canada's Immigration System Act. It builds on reforms to the asylum system in the controversial Balanced Refugee Reform Act (BRRA), which goes into effect on June 29, 2012, and includes provisions to address immigration issues such as human smuggling.

Critics say the new BRRA legislation is unfair to refugees and does little to stop the smugglers themselves.

The government, meanwhile, says the BRRA benefits bona fide refugees. It's expected to reduce the time to finalize a refugee claim from the current average of 1,038 days to 45 days for claimants from certain countries of origin and 216 days for other claimants. It also speeds up the process of deporting people who aren't granted official refugee status.

Who's being smuggled

Some of the people affected by Canada's legislative changes are refugee claimants who, out of fear of persecution or desperation for a better life, pay smugglers to get them to Canada's shores. Others are people who may not be able to get passage to Canada legally and instead decide to take their chances with smugglers.

The smugglers also play on people's desperation or ignorance of official channels, convincing bona fide refugees that a clandestine trip to Canada is their best chance of reaching the country and getting inside its borders.

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Desperate migrants often take big risks and pay exorbitant fees to smugglers for a chance at a better life, These would-be immigrants from Africa were intercepted off Spain's Canary Island of Tenerife on May 17, 2006. (Stringer/Reuters)

The maximum punishment for a first offence for smuggling people into Canada is a $500,000 fine and 10 years in prison. Anyone convicted of helping more than 10 undocumented migrants into Canada can face up to life in prison.

That hasn't deterred smugglers, who often charge tens of thousands of dollars per head to bring people to Canada using methods ranging from supplying forged paperwork to chartering anything from small ships to huge freighters.

It's pricey, but smugglers offer an attractive service for many desperate economic and political refugees. As a signatory to the UN Convention on Refugees, Canada must process all refugee claimants who reach Canadian soil and is obliged not to send migrants who have reached Canada's territorial waters back to their own country if they face persecution there.

The Supreme Court of Canada also ruled in 1985 that all people in Canada are protected under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, giving asylum-seekers who enter Canadian territory the legal right to a refugee status hearing before facing potential removal from the country, provided they are not deemed a threat to public safety.

Trafficking vs. smuggling

Human smuggling shouldn't be confused with human trafficking, which includes an additional element of exploitation — usually in the form of forced labour, prostitution or other types of servitude — and often involves threats or the use of force.

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A policeman marks the arm of an under-age Myanmarese illegal migrant worker awaiting deportation in Ranong province, Thailand, on April 11, 2008. The girl was one of dozens of illegal immigrants smuggled into the country in a seafood container, 54 of whom suffocated en route. (Chaiwat Subprasom/Reuters)

The UN estimates there are more than 2.5 million victims of human trafficking around the world, many of them women and children from Asia, Eastern Europe and South America. A 2010 UN report indicated that human traffickers in Europe alone were raking in more than $2.5 billion US annually.

An earlier report from the United Nations Global Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking estimated 2007 global revenue for traffickers at more than $31.6 billion US.

In Canada, human trafficking is connected with a number of industries, including construction, farm labour, the sex trade, the service sector and child care, according to law enforcement agencies. Concerned that human trafficking is on the rise in Canada, the Canadian Crime Stoppers Association and Public Safety Canada launched a program in 2010 to solicit tips to help battle the problem across the country.

Recent cases of human smuggling and trafficking in Canada

April 3, 2012: Ferenc Domotor, the head of the Domotor crime group, which the RCMP has said is Canada's largest human trafficking ring, was sentenced to nine years in prison and banned from owning a firearm for 10 years after his release. He had pleaded guilty in a Hamilton, Ont., courtroom to being part of a criminal organization and conspiracy to traffic in human beings. The trafficking ring preyed on vulnerable men from Hungary, promising them jobs in Canada but instead  forcing them to claim refugee status, apply for welfare and work long days at construction jobs without pay. The men were held in basements and fed table scraps.

Domotor's son, Ferenc Domotor Jr., was sentenced to five years in prison for the same charges as his father and was to serve 21 months after credit for time served and other deductions. Domotor's wife was sentenced to time served and ordered to pay back  $24,865 owed to the City of Hamilton.

Another member of the group, Attila Kolompar, who was arrested along with Domotor and Domotor's wife and son in  2010 was sentenced in March 2012 to 72 months in jail after pleading guilty to two counts of conspiring in trafficking humans and of defrauding Hamilton's welfare system.

March 27, 2012: the SV Tabasco 2 sailboat with nine people aboard was crippled in rough seas on Nova Scotia's southwest coast, about 148 kilometres south of Cape Sable Island. The disaster, which cost one man his life and left three others missing, may have been a failed human smuggling attempt, federal Public Safety Minister Vic Toews said. Several of the survivors, all believed to be from Eastern Europe, claimed refugee status. The case is under investigation.

March 26, 2012: Savita Singh-Murray of St. Stephen, N.B., and her brother-in-law, Mohamed Yusuf, a Toronto resident, were sentenced to two years in prison. Ravindra Hariprasad, also of Toronto, was handed a one-year sentence in provincial jail. All three were found guilty in September 2011 of inducing or encouraging people to enter the United States illegally between May 5, 2007, and May 11, 2009. They were conspiring to set up two smuggling jobs, involving a Guyanese woman and a married couple from Guyana at the Maine-New Brunswick border near St. Stephen, according to police.

June 7, 2011: Canadian and U.S. border police intercepted a group trying to smuggle people from New York state into Ontario. A joint investigation involving several law enforcement agencies led to the arrests of six people — three in Canada and three in the U.S. — near Lansdowne, Ont.

Aug. 12, 2010: The MV Sun Sea docked in Victoria, B.C., with 492 Tamil migrants aboard. Most have since resettled in B.C. and southern Ontario as they wait for their refugee claims to be processed. About a dozen had been granted refugee status as of March 2012 and at least 14 had been deported. Police are trying to locate one passenger, Santheesan Alakenthiran, to deport him on grounds that he poses a threat to national security.

Oct. 17, 2009: The freighter MV Ocean Lady with 76 Sri Lankan refugee claimants aboard was seized off the B.C. coast by Canadian security officials. Four crew members were charged with organizing entry into Canada. According to the Immigration and Refugee Board, about a dozen of the claimants had been accepted as refugees as of March 2012, and at least one person was deported. The remaining claims are still under review.