Federal agents have developed a "robust" intelligence network targeting Southeast Asian smuggling syndicates, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney says.
It's a shadowy, behind-the-scenes team effort, but one that the minister credits for keeping scores of Tamil asylum seekers out of Canada during the past month. In October, Thai police arrested about 250 Tamil migrants in the Bangkok area.
The plan is to expedite the migrants back to Sri Lanka. And had the Thai authorities not acted, "we believe most or all of these people were destined for Canada," Mr. Kenney told The Globe and Mail editorial board on Monday.
While he suggested Canadian agents played a role in these crackdowns, he said he wouldn't discuss the specific "operational" details.
"It's really about building partnerships with the relevant local police and intelligence agencies," the minister said, explaining that Canada is mostly encouraging Thai authorities to enforce Thai laws. Yet "there is robust intelligence on these smuggling networks. They should know that we and our partners are onto them," he said. "I think you can see ways in which that has borne fruit in terms of deterrence."
The minister's remarks are some the most illuminating statements yet on the Conservative government's controversial and dual-pronged effort to crack down on sea-faring asylum seekers. While the Tories are publicly drawing attention to a proposed legal fix - a new bill that would penalize smugglers and their passengers - the government is also privately dispatching security agents abroad.
For example, a former spymaster, Ward Elcock, is now a globetrotting special adviser on human smuggling. And sources say that top-ranking Mounties - including Deputy Commissioner Raf Souccar and Assistant Commissioner Mike Cabana - have also been sent to Thailand to urge their Royal Thai Police counterparts to crack down on Tamils posing as tourists who are actually awaiting smuggling ships.
Critics say such moves might run afoul of international laws, given that sending federal forces into the wider world puts them into legal grey areas. Yet Mr. Kenney said Canada is facing a full-blown crisis. "Our security partners in Australia tell me they believe the syndicates targeting Canada have the logistical capability to deliver several large steel-hold vessels a year, each with hundreds of passengers," he said.
In the past year, two vessels brought more than 500 Tamil migrants to Canada in the months after a 30-year ethnic civil war ended in Sri Lanka. The migrants were first warehoused in India, then Thailand, and are now in Canada.
Some are reputedly on the hook for up to $50,000 apiece for their travels. The Conservative government alleges that the money is owed to a human-smuggling syndicate that has grown from the remains of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam's gun-running network. The Southeast Asian network had helped supply money and material to Tamil Tigers before the guerrillas were vanquished last year.
The claims of the migrants who have already arrived are before federal refugee tribunals. Win or lose, however, most are unlikely ever to return to their war-ravaged homeland - Canadian laws proscribe that, given they could be at risk of persecution.
Refugee-rights advocates say Canada should not partner with authoritarian regimes that are less mindful of humanitarian protections. Thailand has not signed international refugee conventions, and can jail and deport asylum seekers at will.
Some say that Canadian agents are thus doing an end run around Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms by going to places like Thailand. "If we had proof [of rights-abuses]then for sure we could go to court," said Lorne Waldman, a Toronto immigration lawyer, who adds that lawsuits and bids for injunctions against the government may eventually result.