Not any more

Harper government searching for means to stem tide of boat refugees

In Canada on August 13, 2010 at 19:33

OTTAWA — The Harper government is pushing senior policy-makers and bureaucrats to find ways to keep illegal migrants from landing on Canada’s shores.

Public Safety Minister Vic Toews is leading the charge, telling reporters in Victoria on Friday he suspects human-traffickers are eyeing the possibility of following the MV Sun Sea into Canadian waters, depending on how Canada reacts to Friday’s landing of about 490 suspected asylum-seekers from Sri Lanka.

"I don’t view this as an isolated, independent act," Toews said.

Toews said the government wants Canadian laws strengthened to effectively prevent human-traffickers and other criminal and terrorist organizations from abusing Canada’s "generous" asylum system.

"We believe there are others who are watching this particular situation to determine the reaction of Canadian authorities, and they will be making decisions based on the reaction," Toews said.

Although Toews provided no details of what the government is contemplating, he suggested he wants to bolster targeted provisions within existing laws rather than engage in an overhaul of immigration and refugee rules.

He also acknowledged he had been aware of the MV Sun Sea’s movements for 2 1/2 months.

This is not the first time government officials have wrestled with how to handle potential refugee claimants arriving by boat without treating them differently from those arriving by land or air.

But because the numbers of such arrivals in recent years has been relatively small — only 76 Tamils last year — compared to the 30,000 who apply for refugee status in Canada each year, it has not been a top priority.

The Sun Sea has pushed the issue to the forefront, however, because of the large number aboard the vessel and because the government is taking seriously rumours two more boats loaded with Tamils may be heading this way, a government insider said.

One school of thought within government circles is that Canada should booster its intelligence capabilities and forge agreements with Thailand and perhaps with other countries in Southeast Asia to encourage them to intercept the boats as soon as they come into their waters. The passengers’ applications for refugee status in Canada could then be processed in those countries, possibly with the help of the United Nations.

Canadian law prohibits Canadian authorities from intercepting a ship in international waters or the waters of another country.

Ottawa has kept a close eye on the treatment of asylum seekers in Australia, which has devised a system that does not violate international law that says countries cannot turn away potential refugees from their shores.

Australia refuses to allow boats carrying refugee hopefuls to land, and instead sends them to Christmas Island, which is in Australian waters, for processing. The claimants can wind up staying on the island for months and even years as their claims are investigated.

Richard Kurland, a lawyer who specializes in immigration and refugee issues, said the Canadian government is in a tough spot trying to craft a policy that will live up to its international obligations and also allow it to block prospective refugees from landing in Canada by boat.

Kurland predicted Toews will run into a wall of political opposition if he tries to take the country back to the era of "none is too many" — referring to the 1939 decision by Canada and others to turn away the St. Louis, a ship carrying 900 European Jews fleeing Hitler’s Germany. The boat eventually returned to Germany.

Kurland also said any move deemed by critics to infringe on the rights of those arriving by boat likely would be subject to a charter challenge in the courts.

Opposition parties have already vowed to fight any move to treat claimants arriving by boat differently than other claimants.

© Copyright (c) Postmedia News

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