Human smuggling: Crackdown goes too far

While Canadians aren’t thrilled to see boatloads of people — including both economic migrants and genuine refugees — turning up here seeking asylum, as 492 Tamils from Sri Lanka did this summer, does Ottawa need to slap them in jail for a year, deny them permanent residency and cut their health coverage to tell the world that we won’t be played for patsies?

That’s the question Parliament must ask as it studies Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s tough new crackdown on human smuggling. The Preventing Human Smugglers from Abusing Canada’s Immigration System Act that Public Safety Minister Vic Toews unveiled Thursday warrants critical study before it is rushed into law.

In effect, the bill would create a less worthy category of refugee — people whom Canada’s public safety minister deems to have arrived in a “human smuggling event.” They would pay a heavy price for it.

The vast majority of refugee claimants arrive in Canada by air or by land. The few who arrive by sea, as did the Sun Sea migrants from Sri Lanka, would face far harsher treatment under the bill.

They would be held in mandatory detention for up to a year, or until officials decide their claims. They would have fewer rights of appeal.

Even if they were accepted as refugees, they would not be allowed to apply for permanent residency for five years, sponsor family members or travel abroad. Ottawa could also “reassess” them at any point to see whether they could be shipped home or still need protection. And they would get less health coverage.

All this appears to fly in the face of Canada’s moral obligation to treat refugee claimants equitably, however they get here. It amounts to “attacking the victim and not the criminals,” as New Democrat MP Olivia Chow pointed out. Parliament needs to think this through.

Other elements of the new policy are less problematic, insofar as they target the smuggler kingpins who profiteer from human misery.

Canadian law already provides for $1 million fines and/or life in prison for people who smuggle more than 10 passengers. But in future judges would mete out mandatory prison terms ranging from three to 10 years, depending on the number smuggled and such “aggravating factors” as whether the trade was for profit, part of a crime syndicate, and risky for passengers. There are stiffer penalties, too, for ship owners who skirt the rules.

Some of this would tie judges’ hands. It remains to be seen whether it would deter smugglers, result in more convictions, or even scare off migrants.

Canada processed 34,000 refugee claims last year. Precious few arrived by boat. The real solution lies in persuading countries such as Thailand (where the Sun Sea was registered) to break up the smuggling rings before boats leave port.

Canadians don’t want to be played for fools. But let’s target the profiteers and show some compassion for the people they prey on. This bill needs some sober second thought.

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