Archbishop Brendan O’Brien
OTTAWA — Canada’s Catholic bishops have come up against federal legislation aimed at preventing human smuggling.
They argue Bill C-49, the Preventing Human Smugglers from Abusing Canada’s Immigration System Act, could hurt bona fide refugees.
“Although nations have a legitimate right to counter human smugglers because of grave abuses, notably human trafficking, they also have a duty to take measures that respect the rights of refugees,” Archbishop Brendan O’Brien said in a Nov. 25 letter to Immigration Minister Jason Kenney.
The letter raised concerns that many of Bill C-49’s clauses “may contravene international law and Canadian law, and penalize the refugees more than the smugglers.”
O’Brien reiterated the bishops’ teaching that national interests and security should not be given greater priority than human dignity.
O’Brien, archbishop of Kingston, Ont., is chairman of Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) justice and peace commission.
When Kenney and Public Safety Minister Vic Toews introduced the bill Oct. 21 in Vancouver, the backdrop was the Ocean Lady, a ship that brought 79 Tamil asylum seekers to Canada in 2009.
Human smuggling came to the fore however in August when the MV Sun Sea brought 492 smuggled Tamils to Canada after three months at sea.
The legislation would make it easier to prosecute human smugglers by imposing mandatory minimum prison sentences and holding ship owners accountable.
The bill would also allow the “mandatory detention of illegal migrants for up to one year to allow for the determination of identity, inadmissibility and illegal activity,” according to an Oct. 21 news release.
The bill is designed to deter people from paying human smugglers to gain entry into Canada, the release said. The legislation would allow “illegal migrants” who successfully obtain refugee status to be re-assessed in five years.
“This legislation risks creating serious obstacles to sponsorship and family reunification,” O’Brien’s letter said. It also permits refugees to be detained for lengthy periods and restricts their right of appeal.
That, he said, would contravene the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, a pact which Canada has signed.
Vancouver Archbishop Michael Miller raised similar concerns in an open letter posted on his archdiocesan website.
Miller said the legislation “appears to be losing sight of who the criminals are, and who the victims are.”
“Recent incidents are evidence that Ottawa must put in place appropriate laws to deter and punish smugglers of people,” he said.
“The buying, selling, exchanging and transportation of human beings as commodities offends against the very dignity and fundamental rights of the person.
“Unfortunately, most of the proposed bill actually pertains to the individuals who arrive without authorization,” he said. “The bill is blatantly punished toward refugee claimants both before and after immigration officials have had the opportunity to identity them and establish their backgrounds.”