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Errol P. Mendes Headshot

Human Smuggling Bill Just a Political Game?

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Before the May 2 federal election there were vicious attack ads by the Harper Conservatives after the high profile arrival of the Sun Sea vessel carrying Sri Lankan Tamils seeking refugee status in Canada

In the ads, the Conservatives, seeking a majority government, claimed both the Liberal and other opposition parties were in favour of human smuggling and implying that they are in favour of immigrant queue jumping? Now that they have a majority, the Conservatives are about to bring back the human smuggling legislation, Bill C-4 (formerly Bill C-49).

Those who believe that there should be limits to immoral politics, should be concerned that there may be a most unsavoury agenda behind the proposed legislation. Given that of the approximately 250,000 new immigrants arriving in Canada annually, some 12 per cent are refugees and of those only about half have been involved in human smuggling, why has the Harper government made such a big deal of the arrival of the comparatively very small number of 490 so called "irregular" arrivals in the Sun Sea?

This question becomes even more interesting when one notes that the vast majority of refugees, some 35,000 of them annually arrive by air and would probably be considered regular arrivals. The fact that the Harper government demanded a majority from the voters in order to bring back the legislation should also be analysed with the background of opposition to the proposed law.

Many of the leading constitutional, human rights and international law experts, (including this writer) in Canada along with virtually all the Christian Church leaders and Amnesty International have condemned the legislation as violation Canadian and International laws and values. The highly respected and non-partisan Canadian Bar Association put the essence of the violation of Canadian constitutional and international obligations succinctly as follows:

"The Bill C-49 penalty scheme is a harsh and dramatic shift in policy respecting refugee protection determinations. The denial of detention reviews breaches the s.9 and s.10 Charter protections against arbitrary detention and right to prompt review of detention. The provisions for mandatory unreviewable detention and for denial of access to permanent resident status or travel documents conflict with Canada's obligations under the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Bill C-49 makes amendments to IRPA that have no relation to the human smuggling issue."

There is no opposition from any expert, group or political party to any legislation that focuses on cracking down hard on the smugglers themselves through existing or strengthened criminal laws and developing effective ways of working with foreign states to stop smugglers from using their territory and ports to prey on desperate migrants. These have proven to be the best methods of stopping human smuggling rather than focusing on the victims of these criminals.

So if the mounting evidence from independent non-partisan individuals and groups have concluded that the Harper government's legislation is really not about curtailing human smuggling, what is the real political rationale for it? It is not unreasonable to suspect the answer is that refugees are being exploited for permanent political gain by two high profile media event triggered by the arrival of the Sun Sea and before that the Ocean Lady with 76 Tamils on board. One could argue that it is extremely worrying form of political exploitation because the attack ads and now the proposed legislation seem to conflate the immigration and refugee system by the implication that all who arrive by irregular means are really only economic migrants. This plays well to a base of voters that believes without any rational evidence that excessive numbers of both immigrants and refugees should be curtailed and especially from Asia which is the main source region for both refugees and immigrants. Many in this voter base may also irrationally believe that these refugees and immigrants take jobs away from them.

At the same time, the human smuggling legislation could also be another form of indefensible wedge politics aimed at key voting constituencies in the Asian and other immigrant communities in the following fashion. They will claim that that the opposition parties, especially the Liberals, who oppose the legislation, are in favour of "queue jumping" by huge numbers of "irregular" arrivals by boat which affect the length of time it will take to get law abiding relatives of those in these communities to qualify as legitimate immigrants. This is patently false and if that is the true goal of the legislation amounts to exploitation of the very constituencies whose support is being sought. In this sense the real purpose of the human smuggling bill could very well be to play what I call "a double-reverse race card" in attempts by the Harper government to cement two very distinct and adversarial voting blocs. If this is the real purpose of the legislation, it goes beyond the limits of any defensible democratic politics.

The futures of the vote rich immigrant communities in Canada depend on having a respectful, non-discriminatory and peacefully multicultural Canada where refugees and immigrants are not used as instruments of wedge politics to win elections.

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