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Critics see Victoria tie to refugee crackdown

Feb 17 2012

The federal government introduced a bill Thursday that would impose a mandatory one-year detention for refugees who arrive in Canada by boat or "irregular arrival," which critics call a knee-jerk reaction to the two migrant ships that arrived in Victoria in recent years.

The government has promised tougher laws to prevent "bogus" refugees from abusing Canada's immigration system since the Ocean Lady and MV Sun Sea arrived in the capital in October 2009 and August 2010, respectively, carrying a combined 600 Sri Lankan asylum-seekers.

Under the proposed reforms, the minister of public safety will have the power to designate a group of people as an "irregular arrival," based on whether border officials suspect human smuggling, criminal involvement or terrorism.

Once designated, a person could be detained without review for up to a year or until a decision is made by the Immigration and Refugee Board.

Even if the person were found to be a legitimate refugee, they would be prevented from applying for permanent resident status, obtaining a travel visa or sponsoring family members for five years.

The government made changes to exclude foreign nationals under the age of 16 from the mandatory detention after this measure came under fire.

"The Conservatives took two very sad cases where you have two boatloads of people escaping a vicious civil war in Sri Lanka and they chose to exploit that for political purposes," said Don Davies, NDP immigration critic.

Davies said the government took a "knee-jerk reaction" that punishes refugees instead of the human smugglers who sell spots on a boat for tens of thousands of dollars.

Immigration Minister Jason Kenney said the measures would bring Canada in line with countries such as Britain, Australia and the United States, and will not hurt our reputation as a compassionate country.

"[Many] believe Canada has a soft touch and we have a system that is more easily exploited," Kenney said.

"Today, we're sending a message that Canada will no longer allow its generosity to be abused."

The bill, called the Protecting Canada's Immigration System Act, is a combination of reforms to the asylum system passed in June 2010 and the controversial Bill C-4, which refugee rights groups, lawyers and opposition MPs have slammed as a violation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers points out that the Supreme Court ruled in the 2007 Adil Charkaoui case that mandatory detention without review is unconstitutional.

"If we are dealing with the mass arrival of genuine refugees who are escaping persecution, then we really have a concern of the psychological impact of mandatory detention," said Donald Galloway, a law professor at the University of Victoria and cochairman of the association's legal research committee.

Davies and Galloway said the government is trying to divert attention from Bill C-4 by rolling it into a larger package of reforms, much like it did with the omnibus crime bill.

Australia imposes long-term detention for asylum-seekers who arrive without proper documentation, a practice that has been condemned by human rights groups including Amnesty International Australia.

"Australia has implemented the same system and their experience is it's had zero impact on deterrence," Davies said.

Liberal immigration critic Kevin Lamoureux said the government is sending a message that "demonizes" the refugee community.

"A vast majority become upstanding citizens and contribute economically and socially to the well-being of Canadians," Lamoureux said.

kderosa@timescolonist.com

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