Is this the way to deter human smuggling?

This week’s blog post is by Julia Tallmeister, Advocacy Research Intern at the Ottawa Office, in anticipation of Refugee Rights Day on April 4, 2014.

When people fear for their lives and safety, they may be forced to do all they possibly can to ensure their survival. Often, the prospect of security in a ‘safe’ country overpowers the possibility of detention for entering a country illegally.

MV Sun SeaNational hysteria ensued in 2010 when a group of around 500 Tamil migrants arrived in BC on the ship the MV Sun Sea to claim asylum. Despite the fact that the total number of migrants who entered Canada by boat over the 25 year period between 1986 and 2011 (1,500) amounts to merely 0.2 per cent of the total number of refugees accepted into Canada over the same time, the perceived “boat problem” prompted the Canadian government to propose a number of measures aimed at preventing the smuggling of immigrants into Canada.

Much has already been said about Bill C-31, or Protecting Canada’s Immigration System Act, which came into effect in 2012. To mention only a few of the many changes this bill brought forth, it authorized the automatic and arbitrary detention of “irregular arrivals” (or “designated foreign nationals”) over the age of 16, without review, for up to one year. Migrants are now subjectively designated as “irregular arrivals” by the Minister of Public Safety when the identity of a person needs to be established, when investigations concerning the person or group cannot be done in a timely fashion, or when there is a suspicion of human smuggling.

As explained by Dr. Stephanie Silverman at a recent lecture at the University of Ottawa’s Centre for International Policy Studies, detained immigrants now face a multitude of challenges. These include the overpopulation of detention centres, exposure to violence, and the lack of statutory rights to legal counsel and translation services, all of which can lead to deterioration in mental health and higher susceptibility to suicidal tendencies. Immigration detention not only has high financial costs – $70,000 per person, per year – but detrimental social effects, as it criminalizes and securitizes vulnerable groups of people, and immigration in general.

Further, “irregular arrivals” who are granted refugee status are still denied access to permanent resident status for a minimum of five years, making them unable to sponsor children, spouses, or other close family members.

All of this is meant to deter human smuggling.

proud2protectenbuttonWhat is paradoxical, however, is that while the federal government tries to “crack down” on human smuggling, it has also been creating incentives for illegal immigration and human smuggling. Illegal entry from the US into Canada has been on the rise since the Canada-US Safe Third Country Agreement (STCA) came into effect in December of 2004. The STCA prevents individuals from claiming asylum in Canada if they arrive in the US first, and vice versa. With certain exceptions, asylum seekers must make their claim in the first country they enter. This has led to a drastic decline in asylum claims made at the Canadian border and has forced many refugees to make their claim in the United States, despite the several ways in which the American asylum system falls below international standards.

While the STCA is meant to make the border more secure, it has, in reality, encouraged illegal border crossing and human smuggling into Canada. In 2012 the Integrated Border Enforcement Team reported that human smuggling attempts into Canada had increased by 58 per cent from 2010 to 2011. A recent study by Harvard Law School highlights the human toll of tightening the border, finding that some asylum seekers have drowned in desperate attempts to swim across the Niagara River, and others have been killed or lost limbs while trying to cross railway bridges into Canada.

This is just one illustration highlighting the fact that there will always be tensions between the supposed intentions of a policy or law, and the actual impact. It seems to me that if Canada truly wants to decrease the rate of human smuggling, tightening the border and preventing refugees from entering the country safely and legally is not the solution.

April 4th is Refugee Rights Day in Canada. Click here to read about some ways you can reach out to your community and take action to protect refugee rights.

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