Opposition parties turned the tables on the Conservatives Thursday, arguing that while the Tories have billed themselves tough on human smuggling they've actually helped put more money in smugglers' pockets and left migrants in a "ridiculous conundrum."
Several lawyers recently told The Globe and Mail that some of the MV Sun Sea migrants were essentially forced to sell their belongings and family land so they could pay off smugglers and be released from detention. The Canada Border Services Agency had argued those migrants should be kept in custody because they owed money to the organizers of the MV Sun Sea's voyage and could be flight risks under the smugglers' control.
The lawyers said that left the migrants with little choice but to pay the smugglers, a fact opposition critics called disgraceful.
"I think this begs the question of who is generally soft on smuggling and hard on refugees. That's exactly what the Conservatives are. This bill and now this new twist on the situation demonstrates yet again that the Conservatives are all about punishing people who are fleeing for their lives," said Justin Trudeau, Liberal immigration critic and candidate for the riding of Papineau.
Mr. Trudeau's words were seconded by Don Davies, New Democrat public safety critic. Mr. Davies, a candidate for Vancouver-Kingsway, said the Conservative government's handling of the migrant issue has been disastrous from the beginning and continues to get worse.
"The CBSA's policy has created what appears to be a ridiculous conundrum for the people in detention where they are either forced to stay in detention or pay off the smugglers that the government has missed the mark on. It shows that they just continue to bungle this file."
A Conservative Party spokesman referred comment to CBSA.
The agency released a statement in which it said it is not directly arguing migrants should be detained unless they pay their debts. "As stated in the Refugee and Protection Regulations, this may simply be one of the considerations that is taken into account when determining if someone is a flight risk."
CBSA did not respond when asked if placing such importance on this one consideration - as it has at several detention hearings - may have created a scenario in which migrants felt they had no other choice.
When asked if the agency was tracking payments made by migrants to the smugglers, CBSA said responsibility for the human smuggling investigation lies with the RCMP. The Mounties declined comment since the investigation is ongoing.
The MV Sun Sea arrived in B.C. last August carrying 492 Sri Lankan Tamils. More than seven months later, 39 of the passengers - all men - remain in detention. Two people have been ruled inadmissible to Canada and ordered deported.
The MV Sun Sea docked less than a year after another migrant vessel, the Ocean Lady, arrived in B.C. carrying 76 passengers.
In response, the Conservatives tabled Bill C-49 to try and prevent human smuggling. Opposition parties vowed to vote it down, raising concerns about the bill's constitutionality while accusing the Tories of using refugees to score cheap political points. Immigration advocates said the bill would punish refugees by keeping them in detention longer and denying family reunification.
The bill died with the calling of the federal election, but Immigration Minister Jason Kenney said a re-elected majority Conservative government would re-introduce it without amendment.
During a stop in Vancouver this week, Mr. Kenney called Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff "soft on human smuggling."