Senior Conservative ministers unveiled new legislation in Vancouver aimed at punishing anyone who smuggles illegal migrants to Canada.
Immigration Minister Jason Kenney and Public Safety Minister Vic Toews outlined the bill at the Port of Vancouver after the bill was formally tabled in the House of Commons.
"Canada is a welcoming nation, but our government has clearly stated that we will not tolerate abuse of our system," Toews said in outlining Bill C-49, the Preventing Human Smugglers From Abusing Canada's Immigration System Act.
"Our government is taking action to ensure the safety of our citizens and refugees.
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"Human smuggling networks are targeting Canada, because they believe our system can be exploited for profit," Toews said.
The RCMP says that internationally, human smugglers earn some $10 billion in profits a year from the activity. Between 1997 and 2002, smugglers assisted almost 12 per cent of the 14,792 improperly documented migrants who were intercepted in Canada or en route, the police agency says.
Click here for a copy of the proposed legislation.
Among the numerous changes are an amendment that would see a minimum penalty of 10 years imprisonment imposed on anyone bringing more than 50 people to Canada illegally.
It also mandates that people who come to Canada as part of a smuggling event cannot apply for permanent residency status for five years, even if their refugee applications are accepted.
It would also expand the definition of a human smuggler to include anyone who "knows or is reckless as to whether" an asylum-seeker has broken the law. The bill would also allow detention of these asylum seekers for up to a year.
"Human smuggling is a despicable crime and jumping the line is fundamentally unfair," Toews said.
The issue came to prominence in August following the arrival in British Columbia of 492 Tamil migrants on the Sun Sea.
The proposed legislation comes amid reports of at least one other vessel carrying human cargo preparing to depart from Southeast Asia for Canadian waters.
Shortly after the arrival of the Sun Sea in August, the prime minister insisted Canada is a "land of refuge," but the "abnormal" arrival of a ship carrying migrants creates "significant security concerns" the government has a responsibility to handle.
As a signatory to the UN Convention on Refugees, Canada must process all refugee claimants who reach Canadian soil. The most recent government data show Canada received 33,161 refugee applicants in 2009.
Among the proposed changes
|Providing false info||Current law||Proposed law|
|Individual||$10,000 fine and 1 year in jail||$200,000 and 6 months for 1st offence, $500,00 plus 1 year in jail after|
|Corporation||Fine of up to $200,000||Fine of up to $500,000 and $1 million for future convictions|
Opposition parties were quick to denounce the move, with NDP MP Olivia Chow noting that without added resources for enforcement, little will change.
"So far there's not one single RCMP officer being hired, which means this is not enough resources to catch all the bad guys."
Liberal immigration critic Justin Trudeau said the move is a hollow, toothless gesture, since it's often hard to determine — once boats full of migrants land — who's part of the crew and who paid for passage. That makes it impossible to know who to detain and charge, he said.
Representatives of the Tamil migrants said they were fleeing persecution after the country's 26-year civil war between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers.
The Tamil Tigers were defeated in May 2009 and a recent UN report states Tamils need no longer be presumed to be fleeing imminent harm in Sri Lanka.
David Poopalapillai of the Canadian Tamil Congress said he's worried what new rules would do for legitimate refugee claimants.
"We have become known [as] one of the most compassionate countries in the world [and] we want to see that legacy protected. But I think we are slipping from that," he said.
The Canadian Council for Refugees also denounced the bill, saying the amendments of Bill C-49 will treat refugees unfairly by expanding government powers to detain them, denying them freedom of movement and denying some of them the right to reunite with families.
"People who are forced to flee for their lives need to be offered asylum and a warm welcome, not punished," president Wanda Yamamoto said.
"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."