THE DOUBLE STANDARDS
BY TOBI COHEN, POSTMEDIA NEWS MARCH 12, 2013
OTTAWA — A spike in the number of illegal migrants caught up in human smuggling operations, stranded in West Africa and in need of assistance prompted the federal government to double funding for a project that returns those willing to give up their fight for asylum to their country of origin free of charge.
Documents obtained through access to information show Foreign Affairs approved a $4-million funding boost in July 2012 to the International Organization for Migration (IOM) which manages the program, bringing Canada’s contribution to $8 million.
According to the documents, Canada was the only funding source for this particular project which runs from Jan. 2012 to the end of this month. It assists asylum seekers, who are unlikely to meet the refugee test, obtain travel documents and arrange flights home. The IOM covers all travel costs and provides about US$3,300 in reintegration assistance that can be used for vocational training or to start a business.
“Since the onset of migrant smuggling prevention operations in the fall of 2010, Canada has, on several occasions, received requests from cooperating transit states for financial support to manage the unintended consequences of prevention operations,” the documents say.
“This will allow an increase in the number of individuals to be returned to their country of origin through Assisted Voluntary Return and Reintegration.”
In an email, Foreign Affairs confirmed the project had returned more than 530 so-called irregular migrants to their country of origin as of Jan. 31, 2013. These include migrants who paid human smugglers thousands of dollars to get them to a place like Canada, Australia or Europe where they could seek asylum. They never made it to their final destination and were instead stranded in nine West African countries, spokeswoman Chrystiane Roy said.
“It is more cost-effective to assist potential irregular immigrants while they are stranded in developing countries along transit routes for irregular migration, before they get to Canada,” she said.
Niurka Pineiro, a spokeswoman for the IOM, said the country of origin in all 500-plus cases was Sri Lanka. Of those who received assistance, 49 were women and 44 were children. The initial request for assistance, she said, was made in December 2011 after 209 Sri Lankan migrants found themselves stranded in Togo and the country did not know what to do with them.
It’s believed the group was abandoned and never got to board a migrant ship like the MV Ocean Lady that arrived in Canada with 76 Sri Lankan migrants in 2009 or the MV Sun Sea that did the same a year later with 492 Sri Lankan migrants aboard. The two incidents are what prompted the federal government to invest in efforts to intercept human smuggling operations before migrants get to Canada. Legislation passed last June also imposes tough new penalties on the smugglers and asylum seekers who pay them, should they actually make it to Canada.
Pineiro said the first $4 million was to assist about 400 people in total. Guinea, Ghana, Senegal, Benin and Mali are among the other countries involved, she said.
“The numbers haven’t grown exponentially, but they’re still arriving,” she added.
Once they get talking, Pineiro said many have told IOM staff that they paid as much as $10,000 to smugglers who promised to take them to either Europe or Canada. They were told they’d first stop in a “very nice country” where they’d get paid to “pick apples,” but soon found themselves stuck in developing West Africa.
Pineiro said the funds Canada has provided also cover the cost of Tamil translators as well as food, mosquito nets, hygiene kits and medical care. For those who agree to return home, the IOM also provides travel escorts and even medical escorts when necessary. The organization, she said, will also follow up with participants to ensure their reintegration is successful.
A Canadian-funded “information campaign” targeting would-be illegal migrants is also underway in Sri Lanka in an effort to dissuade people from getting involved with smuggling syndicates, she said.
In a speech in January during a visit to Sri Lanka, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney warned “human smuggling is very dangerous” and ultimately “won’t get you to Canada.”
He also cited four instances in which Thai authorities intercepted human smuggling operations destined for Canada. Indonesia, he said, stopped another ship in July 2011. He noted a Sri Lankan syndicate was broken up in May 2012 while returning from a voyage to Canada and that 148 Sri Lankan migrants were arrested in Benin in June 2012. Another 100 were arrested in Thailand in August 2012, he said.
“We estimate that, over the past four years, thousands of Sri Lankan migrants have made initial payments of . . . up to 1.5 million Sri Lankan rupees to smuggling syndicates, most of that down payments, only to lose their money and face misery, threats, detention and deportation,” Kenney said.
“Transit countries have successfully stopped several planned voyages to Canada and will continue to do so.”
As part of a similar program introduced in late June, Canada has committed another $31.9 million over three years so the IOM could assist 6,955 failed refugee claimants in the Toronto area return to their country of origin. By mid February, 1,263 claimants from 66 countries enrolled in the program, 862 of whom had already left. According to the Canada Border Services Agency, 351 were deemed ineligible for the program.