moved that Bill C-49, An Act to amend the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, the Balanced Refugee Reform Act and the Marine Transportation Security Act, be read the second time and referred to a committee.
Madam Speaker, I am proud to open the debate on Bill C-49, An Act to amend the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, whose purpose is to combat the serious crime of human smuggling.
I am pleased to introduce this bill. Canada is very proud of its long tradition of being a place of migration for people from around the world. We receive more newcomers than any other country in the developed world, 0.8% of our population, every year as new permanent residents.
We are also proud of our long humanitarian tradition of being a place of protection and refuge for victims of persecution and violence, those who need our protection. This goes back long into our history, in fact to the days of the arrival of the United Empire Loyalists, the Black Loyalists, the Underground Railroad, the eastern European refugees before the war, the refugees from Hungary and Soviet and Communist oppression after the war, and, most famously, the over 60,000 Indo Chinese who were welcomed by Canadians in 1979 and 1980. This underscores our long and deep humanitarian tradition as a place of protection.
Canada receives more resettled refugees than any other developed country in the world. This is so important to Canadians that our government announced earlier this year an increase of 20% in the number of resettled refugees who we will receive. That means that, beginning next year, we will welcome some 14,000 refugees in need of our protection each and every year, which is in addition to those who come to Canada making asylum claims that are assessed by our Immigration and Refugee Board and through various appeals and administrative appeals in our legal system.
One of the problems this Parliament recognized was the abuse of that asylum system, which is why Bill C-11, Balanced Refugee Reform Act, was adopted unanimously by this Parliament following all party co-operation in the spring in order to significantly speed up the process of refugee determination, providing protection to bona fide refugees and the removal of those who seek to abuse Canada's generosity.
However, Canadians are deeply concerned with a particularly pernicious crime, a crime that exploits vulnerable people in their dream to come to Canada, the dangerous crime of human smuggling.
In the past year, it is well known that Canada has received two large vessels on our west coast, together carrying nearly 600 illegal migrants to our shores, people who, based on our intelligence, had paid criminal smuggling syndicates some $50,000 each in order to come to Canada in the most dangerous and exploitative way possible.
The remarkable openness of Canada to immigration in general and refugee protection in particular, which makes possible our very generous approach to immigration, is dependent on public confidence in the system. I submit that Canadians demand an immigration system that is characterized by a sense of fair play and a rule of law. What disturbs them deeply about these mass illegal smuggling operations is precisely that they undermine those principles of fundamental fairness and the rule of law.
The position of Canadians and the position of this government is and ought to be that we will be a country of openness, we will be a country that provides protection to those who are in need of it and we will lead the world in the moral obligation of refugee protection, but we will not be treated like a doormat by criminal networks that seek to profit from, frankly, encouraging people to come to this country illegally in a fashion that puts them and others in moral danger. We know that every year hundreds and potentially thousands of people around the world fall victim to the dangerous ruse of smuggling syndicates.
Let me be very specific about the problem we face and then allow me to identify the strong but fair remedies that we propose in Bill C-49 and in certain associative operational actions that are taken by this government and its agencies.
First, I came back last month from a visit to Asia, including to Southeast Asia, where I met with counterparts in various foreign governments. I met with our own Canadian intelligence police, border security and Immigration officials and learned a great deal about the vile trade of human smuggling in that region.
What I learned was the following. There are approximately three or four criminal syndicates operating in that region that have a long history of being involved in the arms smuggling trade. Because there has been an end to hostilities in the Sri Lankan civil war, those syndicates have now decided to smuggle and to traffic a different commodity, which is human beings. They have refocused their logistical ability to selling people the opportunity to be smuggled illegally to Canada.
I have been told by our partners in the region that they believe these syndicates have the capacity to deliver several large steel hulled vessels with the ability to bring in each hundreds of illegal smuggled migrants to Canada each year. Prospectively thousands of people are being smuggled to our country in this dangerous fashion.
This government, any government and any minister of immigration, as my friend from Toronto knows well, has a profound responsibility to maintain public confidence in the immigration system. What we have seen since the arrival of the last smuggling vessel is a fundamental and very disturbing decline in public support for immigration in general and refugee protection in particular.
According to the most recent polling that I have seen, over 60% of Canadians say that our response to this threat to our sovereignty, our laws and the fairness of our immigration system should be to prohibit these vessels from entering Canadian territorial waters. Fifty-five per cent of Canadians have said that even if these vessels land and some of their passengers subsequently attain refugee protection under our laws, that those people should be returned to their country of origin, notwithstanding a positive legal determination on their asylum claim.
That is the public opinion environment. Imagine how much more vigorous Canadians would feel about this, if we actually had several vessels arriving, which I am informed is within the logistical capability of the criminal organizations involved.
We cannot allow that to happen. The easier path is to do nothing. The easier path is to mouth platitudes. The easier path is to take no difficult decisions. However, the necessary and responsible path is to take firm and meaningful action that does everything we reasonably and legally can to deter and disrupt the smuggling networks, to reduce both the pull and the push factors in this illegal migration so that it stops. To do otherwise is to put at risk the broad public consensus, which has historically existed in Canada in favour of immigration and refugee protection, and I will not allow that to happen on my watch as minister of Immigration.
Some would have us believe that we can successfully deter the smuggling operations simply by focusing on the smugglers. How I wish that were true. How I wish it were true that we did not have to, at the same time, address the demand side of the equation in the smuggling enterprise. However, to pretend that is the case, to pretend that we can avoid disincentivizing the customers of the syndicates from paying $50,000 to come to Canada is naive in the extreme.
Therefore, let me present the general approach of the government and then the legislation in particular.
First, it is evident there are legitimate refugees in need of protection in Southeast Asia. It is also true, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, that it is always preferable to find a local or regional protection solution for those who are bona fide refugees and to do everything possible to prevent them from being exploited by trafficking syndicates. That is why we have begun preliminary discussions with our international partners, including Australia, which obviously has a great stake in this issue, and with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to pursue the possibility of some form of regional protection framework in the Southeast Asian region.
In part that would entail encouraging the countries now being used as transit points for smuggling and trafficking to offer at least temporary protection to those deemed by the UN in need of protection and then for countries such as Canada to provide, to some extent, reasonable resettlement opportunities for those deemed to be bona fide refugees, which is something we are pursuing.
However, to be honest, that is a mid to long-term solution. Working on that with the UN and our international partners will not stop the fact that criminal networks in Southeast Asian countries are planning to smuggle their customers to Canada. They are in the process right now. People have already paid their upfront fee and are sitting in waiting positions in parts of Southeast Asia. Vessels have been acquired. Officials have been, shall we say, induced to co-operate with these networks. The operations are not abstract. This is not a possibility. This is not a theory. This is a real and present reality and we must react with real, present and current action to disincentivize the smuggling networks.
It is also true, insofar as we are talking about a flow of illegally smuggled migrants of Tamil origin, that we acknowledge Canadians have a stake in seeing a just and durable peace in Sri Lanka. We acknowledge that the Tamil people have legitimate aspirations and that they deserve to be protected from violence and persecution. That is why, through the Department of Foreign Affairs, our High Commission in Colombo and through multilateral institutions, we continue to strongly encourage the government of Sri Lanka to make every effort to find a just resolution to the legitimate aspirations of its Tamil minority. That is one important issue. A regional protection framework is another important issue.
Perhaps the most important element in combatting the smuggling is to stop the boats from leaving the transit countries in the first place. That is why our government has directed relevant security and intelligence agencies to increase their presence and capability in the transit countries, partly to assist the transit countries in improving their capacity to detect fraudulent documents and smuggling networks and to gather better and actionable intelligence to prevent people from being loaded on to the vessels in the first place.
In this respect, I would note that two weeks ago the Royal Thai Police detained some 150 individuals who were in the country illegally, without status. Apparently they were planning to board vessels to be smuggled possibly to Canada. Therefore, that work is being done as well. There is increased and improved police and intelligence co-operation in the region among ourselves, the Australians and the transit countries.
However, should a vessel successfully leave a transit country, and we are talking about these leaky, decommissioned cargo vessels that people are loaded onto like cattle to take the dangerous voyage across the Pacific, and arrive in our territorial waters, Canada, after the adoption of Bill C-49, will continue to fully honour our humanitarian, domestic and international legal obligations to provide refugee protection.
We will not endanger the lives of people, as some would have us do, to prevent them from entering Canadian waters. Nor will we violate our international obligations under the convention for refugees and torture or our domestic obligations under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms to provide protection to those who are deemed by our legal system to be in need of it, to have a well-founded fear of persecution in their country of origin. This is to say that we will not, in the technical term refoulement, send back to the country of origin someone who has arrived even through this dangerous, illegal and irregular form of marine migration.
We do need to send a strong message to the smugglers, which is why Bill C-49 proposes strong mandatory minimum prison sentences for those involved in smuggling operations. Those who are involved in smuggling under 50 people would face a mandatory minimum prison sentence of at least 3 years. If there are one of two aggravating factors involved, they would face a mandatory minimum of five years. If the group is over 50 individuals, they could face a mandatory minimum of 5 years unless there was an aggravating factor, such as having put the life or safety of their customers in danger, in which case a 10 year mandatory minimum. We believe this will help to cause the smugglers and the crews that work for them to think twice before targeting Canada for their sordid trade.
We also propose massive new penalties for the shipowners, those who are at the back end of this business enterprise, this terrible criminal profit-making venture. They ought to know that they stand to lose millions of dollars if they acquire a ship to be used for this illicit purpose.
Also, we have broadened the ability to make it easier to obtain successful prosecutions against people smugglers through amendments to the relevant law. We take other measures targeting the smugglers very clearly.
However, when we are talking about an illicit market, one thing history, common experience and economics all tell us is that as long as there is a sufficient demand and a sufficient price, there will always be someone willing to provide a service or a good. Therefore, we cannot be naive about the imperative of diminishing the demand side of the equation in the smuggling enterprise.
We must ask ourselves this. Why are people coming from third world countries paying $50,000 to come to Canada in this dangerous way?
Some of the people we are talking about are actually coming from democracies like India. Recently CBC News did a report on individuals in Tamil Nadu in Chennai in the great Indian democracy who had paid smugglers to come to Canada. One of them wanted to come to Canada because he or she had heard this country provided free monthly salaries. In part, there is an economic pull factor to Canada.
It is clear to us that the capacity of someone who lands in Canada, for example, a positive refugee protection decision, to immediately then sponsor family members, means that the $50,000 price point used by the syndicates is not just an investment on the principal applicant getting into the country, but on those family members who will then follow. Therefore, $50,000 makes sense on the smuggling market because the price point actually will eventually allow several family members to come to Canada in reasonably short order.
That is one of the reasons why it is important to change the business model of these smuggling syndicates by disincentivizing. This is why we propose that those who have been designated to have arrived in a smuggling event and who get a positive protection decision would have temporary residency in Canada for a period of five years. I would be happy to develop that further on questions.