Thursday, December 02, 2010

Liberals To Kill Tories' Controversial Human Smuggling Bill

The Harper government's controversial legislation to combat human smuggling appears doomed.

Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff announced Wednesday that his party won't support the bill at second reading, saying it would hurt legitimate refugees.

The NDP and Bloc Quebecois said they're of the same mind.

Without the support of any of the opposition parties, the minority Conservative government will not be able to get the bill over its first legislative hurdle — winning approval in principle.

The bill would allow the federal government to treat "irregular" refugee claimants who arrive in groups differently from other claimants. They could be detained for up to a year, barred from sponsoring their families or applying for permanent residence for five years, and have their benefits restricted.

The bill would also impose stiffer penalties on human smugglers and on anyone with knowledge of, or even suspicion of, human smuggling.

It has been almost universally condemned by refugee advocacy groups, who maintain the bill's proposed treatment of claimants violates the Charter of Rights and Canada's international obligations to protect asylum seekers.

But Immigration Minister Jason Kenney said "there's a lot of fear-mongering and alarmism about aspects of the bill." He insisted it does not violate the charter and called it a "strong but balanced effort to crack down on human smuggling and queue-jumping."

Kenney said the three opposition parties are thumbing their noses at Canadians, who are "overwhelmingly" fed up with criminal smuggling operations treating Canada "like a doormat." He urged them to at least let the bill go to committee, where opposition MPs could propose amendments.

But Ignatieff said there's no point.

"We just don't think this is salvageable and we take this decision with regret," he said.

"We want to be constructive but I am not going to engage in a legislative process which, at the end of the day, punishes legitimate refugee victims. I want to go after the criminals, I want to go after the boat owners, I want to go after the crews, I want to go after the people who organize human smuggling around the world."

The government introduced the bill in October, in response to the arrival of a boatload of 500 Tamil refugee claimants in Vancouver in August. It was the second such ship to arrive in less than a year and the government warned at the time that more were on the way.

The immigration section of the Canadian Bar Association added its voice Wednesday to the chorus of objections to the bill.

"It is legitimate to target the activities of human smugglers engaged in facilitating irregular mass arrivals of desperate persons," the CBA said in a submission.

"Unfortunately, little of Bill C-49 is directed at smugglers. Instead, it is directed at refugee claimants and refugees."

NDP immigration critic Olivia Chow said her party supports cracking down on human smugglers.As proof, she pointed to an amendment she's spearheaded to another immigration bill, extending the period in which the government can go after human smugglers to 10 years from six months.

But she said the NDP can't support C-49, which is "really the attack refugees bill."

Chow said she asked Kenney to send the bill to committee before seeking approval in principle in the Commons. That would have given the committee more latitude to amend the legislation but Kenney refused.

Since the government has shown no interest in compromising, Chow said opposition parties have little choice but to kill the bill.

Kenney countered that he's prepared to consider "reasonable amendments" that maintain the objective of the bill. But he's unlikely to get the chance now.

Kenney said he won't withdraw the bill but will force opposition MPs to "stand up" and vote against it at second reading. No vote has as yet been scheduled.

He dodged when asked if the bill might be made a matter of confidence in the government, meaning the country would be plunged into an election if the legislation is defeated. He said the government "hasn't taken a position on that."

Ignatieff said the Liberals won't back down.

"I have to make decisions on what I profoundly and deeply believe is right public policy," Ignatieff said.

"This is just one of these moments when you have to decide, 'Do I stand on the charter or do I betray the charter?' And, you know, we're the party of the charter."

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