Expert panel calls proposed human smuggling bill draconian

Last Friday, a panel of experts on refugee law and policy, hosted by the Centre for Refugee Studies at York University, unanimously called on Parliament to defeat Bill C-49, the government’s proposed human smuggling legislation.

Calling the proposed legislation draconian, appalling, egregious, outrageous and shameful, the experts joined a growing chorus of voices denouncing the bill, including the Canadian Council for Refugees, Amnesty International, the Refugee Lawyers’ Association and the Barreau du Québec.

Sean Rehaag (right), a professor at York’s Osgoode Hall Law School, summarized the concerns expressed by the panellists regarding the proposed legislation in a single sentence: “The bill is unconstitutional, it violates international refugee law and it is, frankly, mean-spirited.”

James Milner (left), a professor of political science at Carleton University, said that the bill is a disproportionate response to the arrival of some 500 asylum seekers by sea in the past year, especially in light of the important role that Canada has historically played in encouraging countries in the global south to keep their borders open to asylum seekers. He noted during the panel discussion that, in one 48-hour period recently, over 32,000 asylum seekers crossed from Burma into Thailand – matching the total number of asylum seekers that Canada receives in a year.

Milner warned: “Canada would lose significant political capital and credibility with countries in the global south if it introduced restrictive laws and measures in response to the arrival of less than 500 asylum seekers, while encouraging countries like Thailand to respond more generously to much larger groups.”

Peter Showler, former chairperson at Canada’s Immigration & Refugee Board, said that the provisions in the bill imposing mandatory unreviewable one-year detention on designated asylum seekers violate the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Rehaag agreed, adding that the penalties imposed by the bill on recognized refugees who come to the country using human smugglers – including mandatory detention and a minimum five-year bar on obtaining Canadian permanent residence and reuniting with family – are inconsistent with the purposes of the Immigration & Refugee Protection Act, and contravene the charter and international law.

Audrey Macklin (right), professor in the Faculty of Law at the University of Toronto, echoed these views, saying, “The bill is so flagrantly illegal that it is almost inconceivable that it could survive a court challenge.”

Two of the three federal opposition parties, the NDP and the Bloc Québecois, have indicated their opposition to the bill, whereas the Liberal Party has not yet taken a position.

“It is absolutely shameful that the leader of the official opposition in this country has, to date, failed to take a clear stand against this bill,” said Sharry Aiken, a professor in the Faculty of Law at Queen’s University. “This is an abject failure of leadership.”

To view video of the panel discussion, “Assessing Bill C-49: An Act to Prevent Human Smugglers from Abusing Canada’s Immigration System”, which took place Friday, Nov. 12, click here.