Madam Speaker, it is my pleasure to speak to Bill C-4 today. However, as this is my first time rising in the House since the election in May, I would like to take one moment to thank the voters of Burlington for sending me back here with 54% of the vote. It was a very nice election.
I want to congratulate all members, whether new or returning to the House. As well, I believe it is important to welcome the pages who are just starting out this week. Remembering everyone's names and idiosyncrasies is a tough job. They do a great job and I thank them. I hope they have a great year.
I am pleased to stand in the House today to speak in support of the bill. It will go a long way to making our nation safer by cracking down on the illegal and dangerous activity of human smuggling. The Preventing Human Smugglers from Abusing Canada's Immigration System Act is a critical piece of legislation that responds to a critical need.
The smuggling of people is not a new crime. In fact, it has been happening around the world for many decades. I am sure all hon. members have heard stories of people paying a fee to bypass legal and proper immigration processes to sneak across the Mexico-United States border.
My riding of Burlington is not that far from the U.S. border, and on a weekly basis a number of people come to see me regarding the issue of crossing the border illegally.
When I was first elected, I was amazed that individuals in discussing with me how they came to Canada eventually would admit that they got here illegally. They did not follow the legal process. They claimed refugee status when they arrived at the border. Then they would come to my office because they wanted me as their MP to help them continue the illegal process they had started.
Out of respect for the office I hold as a member of Parliament, I told those individuals that I would not interfere in any illegal activity that they had undertaken. I instructed them to follow the legal and appropriate processes to immigrate to Canada, under the refugee system and the immigration system. Often we would call those people a few weeks later to determine what they had decided to do, but they would be hard to find and in some cases we could not find them at all. It does happen. It happens in Burlington. It happens across this country and has been happening for many years.
It may come as a surprise to some that this problem is not new to Canada. Every year thousands of people seeking asylum try to enter Canada illegally by air or by land through the help of organized criminal smuggling networks.
As well, illegal immigration by sea is not new to Canada. In 1999, close to 600 immigrants from China's Fujian province arrived on Canada's west coast in four different vessels. What has changed is that Canadians are aware now of the direct impact this criminal activity is having on our nation. Canadians have received a wake-up call that Canada is being increasingly targeted by organized human smugglers based out of Southeast Asia who view our immigration system as a very generous system to be exploited for profit.
Two events in recent years have served to raise the profile of this issue in the minds of Canadians. One is the ship that recently came to British Columbia. My constituents have been asking what we will do to stop this from happening in the future.
Last August, 492 Sri Lankan Tamils arrived in British Columbia aboard the vessel the MV Sun Sea. This occurred less than one year after the arrival of the MV Ocean Lady, which carried 76 Sri Lankan Tamils.
These two events are an issue in my riding. Although we are in Burlington, thousands of miles away from where the activities took place, Burlingtonians and all Canadians are concerned about how we could allow those events to happen.
While these two vessels landed on the west coast, this is an issue that, as I said, extends across the country. In the past, Canadian border authorities have also dealt with cases of human smuggling in eastern Canada, including at the Port of Montreal.
This is a growing transnational issue that threatens our national security. It also raises significant concerns regarding human rights and the rule of law here in Canada.
These human smugglers are making huge profits by promoting illegal immigration. They are not immigration consultants. They are not helping people with the actual process. They are taking thousands of dollars from individuals and putting them on inappropriate ships and sending them to countries, including Canada, where they think they can get away with bypassing the immigration system. They are charging individuals large sums of money to transport them to a country and advising them to claim asylum, refugee status, when they arrive. This unlawful activity has implications for our country. Ultimately, it affects our system and all Canadians across this country.
I am sure that hon. members can well imagine how conducting identity and admissibility examinations of over 500 individuals arriving on a single boat can significantly tax our immigration and border security systems. Let us be frank about it: we are not set up for mass immigration or mass asylum seekers in that format.
Sadly, the costs of human smuggling to society are more than can be measured on balance sheets. Often this illegal transport means great misery, illness and even death for many of the individuals involved, who are transported thousands of miles in very unsafe conditions.
This was clearly seen in the terrible events that occurred off the coast of Australia's Christmas Island in December of last year. Thirty people lost their lives when a wooden boat operated by suspected human smugglers was destroyed in stormy weather. The Christmas Island example in Australia is just one of many incidents that have happened around the world.
Further, human smuggling is fundamentally unfair to those who follow the rules and wait their turn to come to Canada, which we all see in our offices. We all sympathize with those who are following the rules and are trying to become Canadian immigrants by following the legal procedure.
I am a sixth or seventh generation Canadian, but my in-laws came here from Italy. They came through the legal route. They had to wait their turn to get here. They followed the process. They did not come on a boat and claim refugee status after paying a smuggler thousands of dollars to escape from Italy. They followed the rules. They expect everyone else to follow the rules. They welcome immigrants, obviously. In my family, particularly through marriage; people in my in-laws' family are almost all immigrants. They have been very successful. Canada has been good to them. Canada is the better for their arrival and their contribution, but they did it the legal way, and that is what this bill is about.
Canada welcomes thousands of new immigrants and refugees every year through one of the most generous and fair refugee systems in the world, but when Canada is forced to deal with the arrival of a vessel filled with hundreds of illegal migrants, the resulting backlog of work means that those who go through the proper immigration channels get pushed back in line. This is not fair to them, their children or their spouses.
We will not stand idly by while criminal organizations target our country and our generosity. That is why our government took action in October of last year and first introduced this legislation to send a clear message to human smugglers that Canada will not tolerate them. That is why we have reintroduced this legislation in this session. We believe that the passing of this bill cannot come soon enough.
This issue is not going to go away. We must act now. We must be responsible parliamentarians.
With this legislation we are taking firm and reasonable action to defend the integrity of our borders. We are determined to protect our immigration and refugee system from abuse and to prosecute human smugglers to the full extent of the law.
While Canadians are, by and large, supportive of a generous and open immigration and refugee system, we also understand that every sovereign country has a responsibility to protect its citizens and the integrity of its borders. This bill clearly shows that we will not tolerate abuse of our immigration system, either by human smugglers or by those unwilling to abide by the rules. At the same time, it will allow us to continue offering protection to legitimate refugees.
The new legislation will enable the Minister of Public Safety to declare the arrival of a group of persons as an “irregular arrival” and make those involved subject to the bill's measures. The bill recognizes the gravity of this decision by stating in clear terms that only the Minister of Public Safety can make this decision and that it cannot be delegated to another official.
The legislation will also make it easier to prosecute human smugglers, establish mandatory minimum prison sentences for those who are convicted of human smuggling, and hold shipowners and operators to account for the use of their ships in human smuggling operations. This bill reduces the attraction of coming to Canada by way of an illegal smuggling operation.
The legislation contains measures to prevent those who come to Canada as part of an irregular arrival, including those who subsequently obtain refugee status, from applying for permanent resident status for a period of at least five years, including those who obtain that refugee status.
We want to enhance the opportunity to rescind the refugee status and remove from Canada those who return to their country of origin for a vacation or who demonstrate in any other way that they are not legitimately in need of Canada's protection. We must prevent individuals who come to Canada as part of a designated human smuggling operation from sponsoring family members for a period of up to five years.
Many of Canada's global allies and partners have found themselves the target of organized human smuggling ventures. This is an international problem, and it must have an international solution. No nation can solve illegal smuggling by acting purely on its own. That is why we have appointed a special adviser on human smuggling and illegal migration, Mr. Ward Alcock, to coordinate a whole-of-government approach to this issue. Mr. Alcock's role allows us to engage other international partners with a common voice to find ways to prevent these vessels from departing from their home country in the first place.
Since his appointment in October of 2010, Mr. Alcock has met with officials in Australia and a number of other states in southeast Asia, as well as with representatives at the United Nations, to discuss approaches to managing irregular immigration that is happening around the world. He has also attended several meetings of the Bali process, which is a regional forum that brings together more than 50 countries and international organizations that are developing practical measures to combat human smuggling and related crimes in the South Pacific region.
Adding weight to this international discussion, the Prime Minister has urged leaders from the APAC nations to work together to find concrete solutions to the problem of human smuggling. Last fall, the Prime Minister met with international allies at the annual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum highlighting the critical need for stronger and more effective laws to crack down on this global problem. This ongoing collaboration is critical to shutting down human smuggling operations and will send a very strong message to would-be smugglers that their illegal activities will no longer be tolerated.
The measures we are introducing today will substantially improve our ability to crack down on those who engage in the illegal activity of human smuggling. These measures respect our international obligations and commitments that provide assistance and sanctuary for those who are legitimate refugees and who need our protection. Canada opens its doors to make sure they have the quality of life and opportunity that they all deserve so that they are able to start a new and better life here.
We call on all hon. members to support this legislation and help us pass this act as soon as possible.