Politics

Canada funding migrant-blocking operations in countries with poor human rights records

The Trudeau government has provided financing for police training and surveillance equipment in at least seven Southeast Asian countries with histories of human rights violations — Myanmar, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Thailand — to intercept irregular migrants and smugglers.

Trudeau government is sending money abroad to stop irregular migrants from making their way to Canada

In a photo posted to Facebook by Interpol last year, migrants are intercepted by Mexican border guards under an Interpol program called Operation Turquesa, funded in part by Canada. (Interpol HQ/Facebook)

The Trudeau government has provided financing for police training and surveillance equipment to at least seven Southeast Asian countries with histories of human rights violations — Myanmar, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Thailand — to intercept irregular migrants and smugglers.

Myanmar, for example, has been widely criticized for its treatment of the Rohingya Muslim minority, treatment that was condemned as genocide by Canadian MPs.

The Trudeau government has contributed the funding via "Project Relay," an Interpol operation. Deployed in 2017 and 2018, the initiative worked to better equip seven Southeast Asian countries in the detection of irregular migrants and smugglers.

Back in May 2019, CBC News/Radio-Canada revealed details of Canada's fight against irregular migration.

At the time, despite repeated requests, the federal government refused to name the countries that received Canadian aid to hold back irregular migrants.

An access to information request filed with the federal government in June 2019 produced a Global Affairs Canada document that blacked out the names of the nations receiving federal funding through Canada's Migrant Smuggling Prevention Strategy.

The names of countries targeted by Project Relay were redacted in a Global Affairs Canada document obtained by Radio-Canada under Access to Information. Keywords in the document allowed Radio-Canada to identify them using social media reports by some of Canada’s partners who openly share this information. (Global Affairs/Radio-Canada)

Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne defended the decision to withhold the names of those countries, insisting that it had nothing to do with those nations' human rights records.

"If we give details, it would frustrate this policy to halt irregular migration flows," Champagne told CBC News/Radio-Canada.

"It's as if we gave details on an ongoing operation. It would go against the very people we are trying to save, the very people we are trying to help."

But keywords in the redacted document allowed CBC News/Radio-Canada to find reports that name the nations involved. Interpol even shared photos on Twitter and Facebook of police, customs and immigration agents attending specialized training on border surveillance — training financed by Canada.

Canadian funds were also used to buy surveillance equipment and communication technology for "strategic border points" in these countries.

Operation Turquesa

Canada also took part more recently in Operation Turquesa in South America, according to Interpol documents published online.

The operation, which took place at the end of October, 2019, was intended to disrupt the primary smuggling routes used by migrants to make their way to the U.S. and Canada.

Interpol says that the operation has led to 53 arrests and the identification of some 775 migrants.

Participating countries in Operation Turquesa included Mexico, Nicaragua, Honduras, Salvador and Colombia.

A man is arrested in Costa Rica last October as part of an Interpol program called Operation Turquesa. It is one of two Interpol programs aimed at preventing irregular migration and human smuggling funded in part by Canada. (Interpol HQ/Facebook)

According to a document obtained under the Access to Information Act, the Trudeau government has given at least $5 million to Interpol since 2017 as part of the federal Migrant Smuggling Prevention Strategy.

The strategy, put in place by the Harper government in 2010, has remained in effect under Justin Trudeau's government, which now spends nearly $18 million a year on it — more than the Conservatives did when they were in power.

Champagne: Canada is protecting the 'vulnerable'

Champagne defended the government's efforts to stop irregular migrants from coming to Canada, saying that it's intended to protect the "vulnerable."

"The biggest victims of these irregular migratory flows are often women and children. Our position, our funding, is aimed at stopping those flows," he said Monday. "These people are often the most vulnerable. They are the people smugglers try to exploit."

While it works to dismantle migrant smuggling networks, Interpol says it recognizes the difficulties that migrants face.

"Faced with tougher immigration policies in destination countries and improved technology for officials to monitor border crossings, willing irregular migrants rely increasingly on the services of organized people smugglers," says an online Interpol document.

About the Author

Award winning investigative reporter with Radio Canada