Madam Speaker, I welcome this opportunity to rise in support of Bill C-31, protecting Canada's immigration system act.
Canada has a long-standing and well-respected reputation as a nation that welcomes more than 250,000 refugees and immigrants every year. As I indicate to my constituents, that is the equivalent of building the city of Winnipeg every three years. We get a tremendous number of people coming into this country, given our generous refugee and immigration system. With Canada's population of approximately 33 million, that puts stress on government and infrastructure at all levels. Our immigration system is one of the most generous and fair systems in the world.
We have heard time and time again that Canadians have no tolerance for those who abuse our generosity and take advantage of our country. Make no mistake, there are those who look at Canada's generous immigration system through a different lens. They see it as an opportunity for exploitation, an opportunity to make profit by skirting the rules and smuggling people into our country. They have no regard for our rules and no concern for the safety and the well-being of their passengers.
Over the past several years we have seen more incidents in the media about human smuggling criminal operations at work around the globe, sometimes with tragic results. Two years ago, 30 people died when their wooden boat operated by suspected human smugglers capsized off the coast of Australia's Christmas Island. Also, close to 200 irregular migrants destined for Australia perished when their vessel capsized in rough waters off the coast of Indonesia last December.
Recent incidents in Canadian waters and on Canadian soil are a clear indication that these migrant smuggling syndicates are focusing their efforts on our nation. The headlines tell the story. There was the irregular arrival of two boats off the coast of British Columbia within a year of each other.
Human smuggling organizations around the globe continue to actively target Canada as a destination of choice. There must be stronger laws in place that specifically condemn the practice of human smuggling for what it is. It is a dangerous criminal activity that risks the lives of those smuggled and undermines Canadian sovereignty and our immigration system. I will be returning to these themes, but we must act now to prevent human smugglers from targeting Canada.
Bill C-31 contains important provisions that would help to address the growing threat of human smuggling, a despicable activity. Before I go into the specifics of our legislation, I would like to take a moment to provide some context to what we are talking about.
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime refers to human smuggling as a deadly business characterized by the following trends and patterns. First, human smuggling is increasing as more criminals are providing these services to irregular migrants to evade national border controls. Second, the crime of human smuggling is a low risk, high reward activity, meaning that more criminals are turning to this practice as a means of generating significant revenues. Third, smugglers continually evolve in their tactics in order to respond to changing law enforcement efforts by states that must respond to this activity. Lastly, smuggling puts the lives of those smuggled at risk.
All of these trends and patterns illustrate the need for all countries, including Canada, to be vigilant in responding to this crime. That is exactly what we are doing in Bill C-31. The bill contains firm and reasonable measures that address specific challenges related to human smuggling and irregular arrivals. What are those challenges? I would like to quote from a case in the Ontario courts which summarizes them quite accurately. The judge noted, and I quote directly, that:
The implications of human smuggling are profound and far-reaching. The integrity of Canada's borders is compromised when criminals such as these smuggle illegal aliens across. There are no checks on the type of people entering, making it possible for criminals and terrorists to move back and forth between these countries at will. The risk to society generally of this kind of criminal activity is great.
It is important for national security and public safety to send a message that those who would compromise our international borders in this manner will be dealt with severely. Illegal smuggling of human beings cannot be permitted to become a profitable business operation in Canada.
Those observations demonstrate the importance of improving our responses to this crime and safeguarding the integrity of Canada's borders. That is exactly what we are proposing to do in Bill C-31.
This bill would make it harder for human smugglers to undermine the integrity of Canada's immigration system while still continuing to offer protection to refugees. This has always been the position of our government. The 2011 Speech from the Throne underscored the government's commitment to combat human smuggling which can place migrants in dangerous conditions and undermine trust in Canada's immigration system.
During the last election, we were also clear. Our platform reiterated that it is not fair that criminal human smugglers and bogus claimants abuse Canada's generosity and jump the immigration queue ahead of those who follow the rules. Members probably know from their own experiences in riding offices how many legitimate immigrants are waiting to come to Canada, yet because others are jumping the queue, they and their families are suffering as a result. Quite frankly, that is not fair.
The bill before us today makes it clear that Canada and Canadians do not and will not tolerate the despicable crime of human smuggling. Canada has always been a strong and visible supporter of international efforts to fight human smuggling. Bill C-31 would provide law enforcement officials additional tools to investigate and prosecute individuals who organize, engage in and profit from human smuggling.
As hon. members are aware, our existing laws against migrant smuggling target a very specific manifestation of human smuggling. The crown must prove that the accused knew the people being smuggled did not have the documents needed to enter Canada. This bill proposes to change this law and broaden the offence to provide a more comprehensive response to the various manifestations of this crime.
The first way it does this is by expanding the offence so that proof that the accused knew that any part of the act would be violated, and not just the failure to have the necessary documents, would constitute smuggling. The focus then is on the smuggler breaching the act, as opposed to whether the smuggler knew that the individual did not have the documents. That specific knowledge, of course, is very difficult to prove in any prosecution.
The second way this offence would be broadened is by adding the mental element of recklessness to the offence. This would mean that a prosecutor could lead evidence showing that the accused was subjectively aware of the substantial risk, but without absolute certainty that the smuggled persons would be entering Canada in contravention of the requirements of the act, and proceeded despite the risk.
This is a fairly common term in our criminal law. It is probably expressed best in the concept of wilful blindness where essentially someone knows there is something wrong but proceeds anyway and suggests that he or she did not know specifically what was wrong. In fact, that person is wilfully blind. The law has never viewed that as an excuse. I think this amendment would bring the legislation into that stream of well-established law in Canada.
These amendments would provide our police and prosecutors the necessary tools to respond to human smuggling in all of its forms. Bill C-31 proposes mandatory minimum penalties for anyone convicted of human smuggling. Depending upon the circumstances of the offence, these mandatory sentences would range up to a maximum of 10 years for the most grievous offences such as those conducted for profit by a criminal organization or terrorist group, or endangering the lives or causing the death of smuggled persons.
These mandatory penalties are highly tailored and respond to the most harmful and dangerous manifestations of a practice that is done with little or no regard for any of those being smuggled. Similarly, this bill would increase the penalties for violations of the Marine Transportation Security Act, such as refusals to comply with a ministerial directive to leave Canadian waters or for providing false or misleading information to officials. In such cases, individuals would be liable for fines of as much as $200,000 and up to $500,000 for a subsequent offence. These changes will deliver a strong, clear message. It is a message that must be delivered before the next migrant vessel sails for our shores, and that risk is very real.
Bill C-31 will deter human smugglers from mounting such ventures. Indeed, we must do more than simply express our distaste for human smuggling. There is also the simple yet profound matter of exercising our right as a sovereign nation to protect our borders. Canada has the right to decide who enters this country and there is no question that Canada is very generous in that regard, as I indicated in my earlier remarks. At the same time, we have an international obligation to assist those in need.
The existing rules allow a foreign national or permanent resident entering Canada to be detained if an immigration officer considers that person's detention necessary in order to carry out a proper investigation to make sure that the person is who they say they are. This is nothing different from what happens in our courts on a daily basis. If someone goes to court and a court cannot identify them, that person will remain in custody, whether a Canadian citizen or not. That is the general rule in our criminal justice system. If someone cannot identify who they are and the court is not satisfied who they are, that is the regular rule applied within our criminal justice system. What this essentially does is to extend the same principle to foreigners and illegal migrants who come to our country and then demand entry. Our country must have the same rights that it exercises in respect of citizens who refuse to identify themselves with those who are not citizens or, indeed, those whom we have no idea who they are. This is prudent and it must be done. There is nothing in their background that would make them inadmissible to Canada, but we do not know who they are.
Detentions of this kind must be reviewed by the Immigration Review and Refugee Board within 48 hours, and again within seven days and, if necessary, every 30 days after that.
The system works well most of the time. However, it is not designed to deal with those who arrive en masse at one location, as was the case with the MV Sun Sea in 2010. Border officials did not have sufficient time to carry out the investigations so vital to protecting public safety. That is why the bill would give them the authority to declare the arrival of a group of people in circumstances such as the MV Sun Sea as an irregular arrival if the minister was of the opinion that their identity or admissibility could not be determined in a timely manner, or if there were reasonable grounds to suspect human smuggling done for profit by a criminal organization or a terrorist group. If a decision is made to designate the arrival, individuals who arrive under those circumstances would be detained until the Immigration Refugee Board determined they were refugees who needed Canada's protection. This would not apply to those 16 years of age or younger.
If they were still detained after one year, their detention would be reviewed at the Immigration and Refugee Board hearing, which would decide whether their detention would continue. At any point during that period, there would be the authority to order early release where exceptional circumstances existed. Subsequent detention review hearings, if necessary, would follow at six-month intervals. These mandatory detention provisions would not apply to individuals who are under 16 years of age.
As I said, these detention measures are needed in the context of irregular arrivals. They provide Canadian immigration law enforcement officials with sufficient time to examine and investigate individuals to determine the identity and admissibility of each and every individual. Presently, the officers do not have the time to process these individuals, and so in a number of cases the boards order the release of individuals whose backgrounds we do not know, that is, who they are and what criminal or terrorists organizations they may be associated with.
The determination of identity may take days, weeks, months and even years, particularly if individuals arrive with no documentation, as they often do. It also takes time to verify any documentation provided, in some cases from overseas. All migrants must be interviewed, and often several times. At the same time, the detention provisions ensure that those found to be refugees and those in exceptional circumstances would be released.
It is not just the number of irregular arrivals but also the complexity of the human smuggling offence and the clandestine, sophisticated and transnational nature of the venture that extend the time required for officials to fully process individuals attempting to enter Canada.
These human smuggling ventures are launched from areas of the world where terrorist and criminal groups are known to be active. The threat is real. It would be irresponsible for our government to allow individuals to enter our country without fully determining their true identity and whether or not they pose a threat to Canada and Canadians.
Common sense dictates that we know who is entering our country in the same way that it is common sense for the courts, on a daily basis, to determine now whether the individuals before them are who they in fact say they are. As I say, this happens with Canadian citizens all the time, and it needs to happen with irregular migrants.
Canada will continue to afford a fair and independent hearing to all eligible asylum seekers and will uphold our obligations under international law to protect those who are found to be refugees.
We have heard from Canadians across the country that they are concerned about the threat of the illegal migrant process in terms of it potentially allowing suspected criminals and/or terrorist-linked individuals into the country. That such individuals attempt to gain admittance to our country taints our entire immigration and refugee system. It could also compromise Canada's reputation as a country able to secure itself against individuals connected to terrorism or organized crime. Indeed, it is our government's priority to defend the integrity of our immigration and refugee system.
The changes we are proposing with the bill will enhance the safety and security of Canadians and, indeed, protect the integrity of our immigration system.
A past editorial published in the Globe and Mail stated the situation we are facing with regard to human smuggling very clearly:
For immigrants, scams and crimes are broken promises that lead to broken homes and a burden of debt owed to middlemen. For Canada, that often means the entry of the wrong people into the country, while others Canada would prefer are forced to wait, or never get their chance to come.
This is certainly something we all hear about in our ridings from individuals who are looking to bring family members into the country.
Every successful incident of human smuggling encourages these reprehensible operators to continue their predatory schemes. Every successful incident of human smuggling encourages more people to try to take advantage of Canada's generosity by convincing individuals to cut in front of those who have followed the rules, who have filed the proper papers and waited patiently for the opportunity to begin a new life in the best country in the world.
I urge all hon. members to support the bill and the fine work that our Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism has done.