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A vessel carrying 490 suspected Tamil asylum seekers makes its way into CFB Esquimalt near Victoria on Aug. 13, 2010. (John Lehmann/Globe and Mail)
A vessel carrying 490 suspected Tamil asylum seekers makes its way into CFB Esquimalt near Victoria on Aug. 13, 2010. (John Lehmann/Globe and Mail)

Stopping human smuggling risks penalizing legitimate refugees, experts say Add to ...

For the Conservative government, the booming global industry of moving people illegally into stable countries is heinous and must be stopped, with tough legislation expected next week.

But for Cristina, human smuggling is a lifeline.

The mother of four from El Salvador now is safe in Ottawa - but only because she hired human smugglers twice to escape violent gangs in her home country, she says.

"If I had stayed, they wouldn't have just killed me. They would have killed my children," said the soft-spoken, stoic refugee.

The Tories plan to introduce legislation that takes direct aim at smugglers like those who arranged Cristina's passage.

Spooked by the arrival of two ships full of Tamil migrants over the last year, and daunted by the prospect of more, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has vowed to do whatever it takes to deter human smuggling.

"This government will be coming forward after the parliamentary break with comprehensive legislation designed to ensure we deter this kind of behaviour, because I know for the vast majority of Canadians, queue jumping and human smuggling in our immigration system is completely unacceptable," Mr. Harper said last week.

But finding a way to deter smuggling without inadvertently making things worse for legitimate refugees is almost impossible, experts say.

International research on human smuggling shows that the harsher countries are on the middlemen, the more expensive and more dangerous their services become.

Demand for human smuggling climbs unabated, because desperate people will pay any price. So crackdowns on the smugglers intensify the criminal aspect of the industry, and do little to deter it.

For almost all the world's legitimate asylum seekers, "there is no other option," says James Hathaway, director of the Program in Refugee and Asylum Law at the University of Michigan, now a visiting professor at the University of Toronto.

"It's like absolute classic market economics," he said in a recent interview.

"We've created the market. But for the stringency of the border controls we have in place, smugglers would be out of a job. It's as simple as that."

He argues that countries acting alone to impose tougher laws will only increase the already high risks for people like Cristina.

The Salvadoran seamstress was willing to pay smugglers a small fortune, not once but twice, and risk her life to get to a safe place.

Cristina is not her real name. Three of her children are still in hiding in El Salvador, and she wants to keep her identity hidden until they can join her in Canada.

She realized she had to leave her country about five years ago. She had been receiving escalating death threats for trying to protect her oldest daughter from the sex demands of a well-organized and brutal gang.

Then, the gang members set their sights on her 13-year-old daughter, too.

Desperate to shelter her children and fearing for her own life, the 40-year-old shopped around, and quickly found a smuggler who would arrange for her passage to the United States for about US$6,500.

She didn't do enough homework. Her attempt failed and she almost died in the process. She was trapped in an air-tight trailer, managed to stumble away, but eventually was caught at the Mexico-U.S. border. She was deported back to El Salvador.

"The importance of finding a good coyote [human smuggler]is very, very necessary," she said.

"It's like assuring your own life and the life of your family members."

Well over half the 20,000 refugees accepted in Canada every year arrive without the proper visas and identification. Out of fear for their lives and their safety, they use illegal means to seek asylum.

Whether they come by boat, by plane or by foot, they depend on a murky underground network of middlemen to arrange for false documents, map out escape routes and backup plans, protect them from bandits and arrange for transportation.

Research by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Interpol and academics shows almost all the world's refugees depend on human smuggling at some point along the way. The smuggling networks are sophisticated, well connected, and increasingly run by organized crime.

Cristina did things differently the second time. She checked out her smuggler more thoroughly, asking for references and some assurances that he had a solid strategy. She needed to know she would not be kidnapped or raped or robbed along the way, or left stranded at the first sign of trouble.

"I knew that the coyote was a Christian and a believer," she said. He, too, needed assurances - that she was truly fleeing for her life, that she wasn't a criminal.

"Being a coyote, it's not just a business. They also run risks," Cristina said. "They do it because it's work, it's a job. But they also do it because it's a way to help lots of people."

Cristina made the most of her second trip by car, crossing borders on foot. Her fake ID and contacts along the way worked this time. By late 2005, she was in Los Angeles, planning her way to Canada.

She snuck over the border from Washington to British Columbia, and then made her way to Ottawa where she had some contacts. Her refugee claim was accepted in August.

When federal authorities say they want to crack down on human smuggling, they're not after legitimate refugees like Cristina. Rather, they're worried about the company she, and other migrants like her, may be keeping.

They suspect that sophisticated smuggling rings like the ones that organized the Tamil ships are using desperate women and children as cover, mixing terrorists and criminals into their group.

Internationally, authorities fear that human smuggling activity uses the same routes and the same officials as the drug trade. Indeed, U.S. officials say the coyotes used by Latin American migrants are now colluding with organized crime and drug rings.

"It's a mixed flow, and we all know that," said Prof. Hathaway.

But cracking down on smugglers necessarily puts needy asylum seekers at risk too, says Sean Rehaag, assistant professor at York University's Osgoode Hall Law School.

Prof. Rehaag says he's concerned that the government will overreact to the arrival of several hundred migrants in ships, without discussing the side-effects on people that Canada has vowed, through international treaties and its own history, to help.

"That's a conversation that we have not had publicly," he says.

Compared with most other countries, the number of migrants arriving on boats in Canada is small, he points out. Most of Canada's refugee claimants arrive by air, and Canada already has a reputation for vigilance when it comes to detecting illegal migrants on planes.

Already, the penalties for human smuggling are high in Canada - huge fines, and up to life in prison.

The federal cabinet is toying with the idea of imposing minimum sentences and stiffer penalties for human smugglers. It has also considered increasing detention times for some asylum seekers, giving authorities a longer period to sort those in need of protection from the criminals.

But the United Nations refugee agency is warning countries around the world that criminalizing the search for asylum is not a solution.

Such an approach "has serious protection consequences for refugees and breeds its own secondary problems for states, including racism and xenophobia," said Erika Feller, assistant high commissioner for protection, in a recent speech.

Expert after expert warns the most efficient way to deter human smuggling is to focus on the problems driving asylum seekers into their hands. No country is able to tackle those issues alone, and so a co-ordinated international effort to target smuggling on the one hand, and help asylum seekers on the other, is necessary.

Ottawa is already talking and working with other countries to do just that. But the Conservatives are not prepared to rely on, or wait for, international co-operation on its own.

"We do need to send a very strong message to people smugglers that their exploitation is not acceptable in Canada. This is a dangerous form of migration," said Immigration Minister Jason Kenney last week.

"It undermines public confidence and support for immigration and refugee protection in general. And we intend to take some very firm measures to address the human smuggling syndicates that profit from people's misery."

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