Canada is certainly not the only country to be driven into legislative distress by the arrival of rusty boats crowded with refugee claimants. Other, more experienced landing-pad countries have lessons to teach us about the nature of human smuggling.
Consider Greece and Spain, which, in the past decade, have seen thousands of boatloads a year show up on their beaches and outlying islands. Greece took the approach Canada is now considering: It criminalized the movement of foreigners and cracked down on the smugglers. This caused the smuggling business to be driven further underground and to be taken over by criminal organizations, which raised the scale of their operations.
As of this year, Greece now gets an astonishing 75,000 asylum claimants, three-quarters of the European total. While immigration numbers have been plummeting in Europe, Greece’s have soared.
Contrast that with Spain. Five years ago, it had a then-record 35,000 people landing on the Canary Islands over the summer and hundreds more dying at sea trying. Instead of cracking down, Spain decided to legalize some of the movements. It struck deals with Morocco, Senegal and Mauritania, allowing planeloads of migrants to come to Madrid semi-legally, with a pathway to citizenship; in exchange, Spain agreed to stop deporting people back if the countries policed things on the sending end.
Within a year, boat-people numbers had dropped by two-thirds, and now they’re a rarity. By creating a semi-legal market in human flight, Spain’s policy drove most of the smugglers out of business.
Canada’s human-smuggling situation is different: All of our smuggled migrants are refugees from conflict zones. And they’re few: Of the 250,000 new citizens Canada gains every year, 12 per cent are refugees; of these, about half appear to have paid a smuggler. Not many come by boat. But as our refugee-claim process has toughened up, smugglers have become more expensive and sneaky.
In general, human smuggling is not a problem. It is, rather, an improvised solution – a private-sector immigration system arrived at by those fleeing conflicts or seeking to claim persecution as grounds for entry.
Smugglers provide an illegal but traditional service; it’s open to abuse by illegitimate people. (And it shouldn’t be confused with human trafficking, the extremely rare practice in which people are moved against their will.) There’s no indication that smuggled refugee claimants are more likely to be illegitimate than any others.
The MV Sun Sea, the battered vessel whose load of Tamils provoked Canada’s human-smuggling panic, only confuses the issue. From my knowledge of Sri Lanka, I doubt that many of its passengers are legitimate refugee claimants. We have a perfectly good determination system to judge this. But it has nothing to do with the fact that they used smugglers to get to Canada.
If we crack down on human smugglers, we’ll only drive the low-level, low-cost operators out of business – the ones used by legitimate families forced to flee conflicts quickly. What will be left will be the sort of people who likely operated the MV Sun Sea – hard-core criminal smugglers, and the sort of well-connected claimants able to hire them. Like Greece, we’ll learn that, when smuggling is outlawed, only outlaws do the smuggling.
Conversely, we can drive the worst of the smugglers (who are also the most expensive) out of business by making our legitimate pathways work as they should. This efficiency doesn’t raise the number of refugees coming in; rather, by killing the market for private-sector alternatives, it can reduce them.
We should know this well. Canada has less of a problem than other countries in large part because we know how to pre-empt the smugglers at their own racket.
The largest “smuggling” operation in this country is the one overseen by the Department of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism, in which Ottawa authorizes private agents (i.e., charities and church groups) to bring in 11,000 sponsored refugees from United Nations camps every year. The minister, Jason Kenney, a huge proponent of the program and its record of integration success, raised the number this summer by 2,000 more.
This does more to make smuggling marginal than any further criminalization would. The Harper government, whose immigration policies are otherwise fairly enlightened, ought to understand how market forces work: If the competition is free, then demand for many of the more expensive services will dry up.