The federal government hopes to crack down on human smuggling by reintroducing a bill that was criticized by opposition parties last fall.
Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney and Public Safety Minister Vic Toews held a news conference Thursday afternoon to announce the bill's reintroduction and said it contains the same measures as C-49 that was tabled in October.
Toews said Canada has one of the most generous refugee and immigration systems in the world and that it has "come under attack by human-smuggling networks."
He cited the arrivals of the Sun Sea and Ocean Lady ships in 2009 and 2010 that brought hundreds of refugee claimants as evidence that Canada's laws need strengthening in order to deter human-smuggling operations.
"Clearly we cannot sit and wait for the next incident. The time to act is now," said Toews.
Canadians want the borders to remain open to those who play by the rules and who are legitimate refugees, said Toews
"But Canadians have been clear that we must protect our borders against those who abuse our generosity for financial gain, threaten the integrity of our immigration system and pose a risk to our safety and security," he said.
When Bill C-49 was originally introduced in October 2010, it drew criticism from the opposition parties and other critics who said it punishes the victims of human smuggling, not the criminals. They also predicted that if the bill became law it would be subject to a court challenge.
Toews said the bill does not target legitimate refugees and that he's not worried about Charter of Rights and Freedoms challenges.
"I'm confident that the measures are charter-compliant," he said.
The previous bill didn't get to a second reading in the last session of Parliament before the spring election was triggered. It's now among the first pieces of legislation the Conservatives have brought back since winning a majority government on May 2.
The bill proposes a number of controversial changes to existing laws. It creates a new designation for the arrival of a group of people as an "irregular arrival" and makes them subject to the human-smuggling laws. It imposes mandatory minimum prison sentences for those convicted of human smuggling and would allow prosecutors to go after ship owners and operators armed with greater penalties for involvement in smuggling.
The bill makes it mandatory to detain those deemed to have arrived in an irregular manner for up to one year or until a decision is rendered by the Immigration and Refugee Board, whichever comes first. It prevents people from applying for permanent resident status for five years if they successfully obtain refugee status and those people are also prevented from sponsoring family members for five years, according to the proposals.
The NDP's immigration critic, Don Davies, denounced the bill's reintroduction and said it is full of flaws and likely contravenes international refugee laws and Canadian laws.
He said it gives the public safety minister too much power and that it confuses human smugglers with legitimate refugees.
Davies said the NDP was hoping the government would have modified the bill given the criticism it faced earlier.
"We are disappointed that it looks like they have not done so," he said.
Toews said the proposed legislation does not unfairly target legitimate refugees and Kenney said its measures are needed to address both the supply and demand sides of the trafficking business.
"As long as someone is willing to pay upwards of $50,000 to be smuggled to Canada there will be people in the black market willing to provide the service," said Kenney. "What we need to do is reduce the demand side of the equation."
The bill's reintroduction comes days after arrests were made related to the Ocean Lady ship that brought 76 refugee claimants from Sri Lanka.