Fix the system

By 
  • December 8, 2010
Canada has a moral obligation to provide asylum to refugees fleeing persecution. And Parliament has a duty to enact tough laws to target smugglers and human traffickers who exploit these people.

On those broad points, Canada’s Catholic immigration minister, Jason Kenney, and Canada’s bishops are in agreement. So it is distressing to see them at odds over Bill C-49, proposed legislation that would hit smugglers with mandatory jail time and nail ship operators with strict penalties.


No one has sympathy for smugglers. At issue, though, are sections of the legislation that would place severe restrictions on asylum seekers. They could be detained up to a year for security screening and barred five years from applying for permanent residency or sponsoring a family member’s immigration.

Those harsh provisions prompted Kingston Archbishop Brendan O’Brien, on behalf of the Canadian bishops’ Episcopal Commission for Justice and Peace, to send Kenney an open letter seeking changes to sections of the bill that O’Brien said “penalize refugees.” O’Brien suggested parts of the legislation contravene Canadian and international law, a common view among opponents.

Kenney bristled at the criticism, particularly to suggestions the bill tramples human dignity, and more or less told the bishops to mind their own business. He refutes claims the bill unduly punishes refugees and contends the new law will not only deter smugglers but also bolster waning voter support for Canada’s open-door refugee policy.

That second point is important. Bill C-49 is a response to the national angst last summer when the MV Sun Sea docked in Vancouver carrying 492 Tamil refugee claimants. There are thousands of people trying to come to Canada legally as immigrants or refugees. So even though Canadians sympathized with the plight of the Tamils, polls showed distaste for the queue-jumpers and disgust for the smugglers who transported them.

Canada’s immigration and refugee laws must be fair and compassionate. At the same time, smugglers and traffickers, who often transport asylum seekers in unsafe conditions, need to be shut down. Striking a balance between those two objectives is no easy task, but a balance is necessary to preserve public confidence in Canada’s refugee policy and to keep our borders open to legitimate refugees.

Kenney argues that intercepting smugglers on the high seas is near impossible. Therefore, the way to dry dock smugglers is to cut off their funding, and that is accomplished by making Canada less welcoming for the refugees whose payments finance the smuggling ships. Kenney’s new law does just that by penalizing refugees who sign up for these smuggler expeditions.

O’Brien and the opposition parties say Kenney has gone too far. The immigration minister should heed their advice. He is on the right track but his legislation still needs some work.

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