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Balance new laws with better system, says refugee services head

The Canadian government has every right to apply new laws around human smuggling, but legitimate channels of immigration for refugees must also be advanced, Mario Ayala, director of refugee services with the Inland Refugee Society of B.C.(IRSBC), told the Tyee.

“We are against the smuggling…but also, the problem is there is no other way that people can come up to here with[out] visa requirements from the Canadian government,” said Ayala in a phone interview.

The federal government unveiled new legislation yesterday that proposes severe penalties for those found smuggling refugees into Canada and for refugees who subvert the legal paths to settling in Canada.

The Preventing Human Smugglers from Abusing Canada’s Immigration System Act would introduce a mandatory year of detention for illegal migrants, jail sentences for smuggling migrants and legal action against owners and operators of ships with illegal refugees on board, according to a 24 Hours report.

Critics say the proposed act will force human smuggling underground and that increased illegal migration is evidence that legitimate systems for migrants and refugees to settle in Canada are dysfunctional.

As the head of an organization that supports refugees settling in Vancouver, Ayala feels caught in the middle of government priorities and the needs of people seeking a better life. On a monthly basis, Ayala works directly with refugees coming from all over the world to the Lower Mainland, both legitimately and by smuggling processes.

So far this year, he’s helped people from countries such as El Salvador, Iran, Mexico, Burundi, Honduras and Cuba settle in Metro Vancouver.

Ayala suggested that the home countries of refugees and organizations like the United Nations could work more closely with Canada to help facilitate and speed up the refugee claimant process. The government also needs to continue to take advice from community organizations that are doing front line work with refugees on daily basis, says Ayala.

In the meantime, he’ll continue the settlement work that began this summer when the MV Sun Sea arrived with nearly 500 Tamil refugees in Victoria.

As he speaks, he’s on a short break from helping the newest group of Tamils released from detention to find housing in Vancouver.

Currently, some are visiting with family, while others are taking English classes and figuring out how they can get their children enrolled in Vancouver School Board classes.

It’s been widely reported that the Federal government thinks that more migrant ships with refugees seeking asylum in Canada may be on the way.

Looking toward the future, Ayala feels it’s important to remind the public that most refugees are legitimate claimants and good people looking to make a better life.

Coming to Canada illegally through a smuggler is “the only way that many people can escape from problems in their own homeland,” said Ayala.

All too often, they leave their home country because "they fear for their own life," he said.

Justin Langille reports for The Tyee

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