Saturday, March 24, 2012


Much talk...but will we see any action on human smuggling?

Canada to step up battle against illegal migration, smuggling

Stephen Harper talks trade, human smuggling in Thailand

By Lee Berthiaume, Postmedia News
March 23, 2012

BANGKOK, Thailand — Canada is contributing $12 million over two years to crackdown on human smuggling and illegal migration in Southeast Asia and other parts of the world.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced the funding during a visit to a Thai police outpost where he toured two military-style vessels and received a briefing on efforts to prevent asylum seekers from arriving on Canada's shores by boat.

Canada established a task force in Bangkok, comprised of RCMP officers and other officials, after a ship called the MV Sun Sea bearing 492 Tamil asylum-seekers arrived off the shores of British Columbia from Thailand in August 2010.

"Since the fall of 2010, intensified co-operation between the RCMP and the Royal Thai Police, has thwarted the activities of human smuggling gangs," Harper told task force members and Thai police officers

"Several illegal operations have been blocked and boats have been stopped before they can sail for Canada's shores."

Ward Elcock, the prime minister's special adviser on human smuggling, told reporters Thai police have not actually seized any ships.

Rather, he said a number of operations had been disrupted, with passengers assembling at staging areas but unable to secure transport to Canada.

In addition, Elcock said one shipload of Tamils was seized in Indonesia last July that was bound for Canada.

Passengers on the MV Alicia claimed they were bound for New Zealand.

Elcock could not say how large or small the problems of human smuggling and illegal migration are in the region, but Tamils from Sri Lanka are the main focus.

About $7 million has been set aside specifically for training and equipping police throughout the Southeast Asian region, including $2.5 million specifically for Thailand, which has emerged as Canada's primary partner for tackling the problem of human smuggling and migrant boats.

Harper thanked the Thai security officials "for their energetic pursuit of some of the world's worst criminals — people who profit from exploiting the miseries and the aspirations of some of the world's most vulnerable people."

Elcock believed two years would be enough to train-up security forces in the region to tackle the problem themselves.

However, he felt changes to Canada's immigration and refugee systems would also help.

Since the MV Sun Sea appeared off the coast of British Columbia, and the MV Ocean Lady carrying about 100 Tamil asylum seekers before it in 2009, the Conservative government has worked to prevent more such boats from doing the same.

In addition to establishing the task force in Thailand, the government also introduced a bill aimed at strengthening Canada's anti-human smuggling laws, targeting both those who ran the boats and those who travelled on board, whom the government accused of trying to jump the queue and take advantage of the country's refugee system.

The effort, however, has been a source of controversy as refugee groups have complained the government is unfairly targeting genuine refugees fleeing war and discrimination in their home countries, which would go against Canada's international obligations.

Harper, who has been in Thailand since Thursday, will now fly to Japan, where he is expected to announce free trade talks with the third-largest economy in the world.

On Friday, a giant red sign in front of Bangkok's palatial Government House greeted Harper a "warm welcome" during his first visit to Thailand.

It's a reception the prime minister is hoping to receive throughout the booming Asia-Pacific region, where Canada has been lagging behind its competitors.

Since coming to power in 2006, the Harper government has completed free trade talks with nine countries. However, none of them are in Asia, which is seen as key to Canada's future prosperity.

Negotiations with Singapore were launched in 2001 but have gone nowhere. Discussions with South Korea have also been stalled for several years, while Canada has had a difficult time breaking into the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a major trading bloc that includes the U.S. and a number of other important economies on both sides of the ocean.

The only real progress for Canada has been with India, and while completing a deal with the second-most-populous country in the world would be a major boon, no agreement is on the horizon. In contrast, the U.S., European Union and others have inked numerous agreements in the region.

Harper and his Thai counterpart, Yingluck Shinawatra, announced with great fanfare the launch of a study into whether a free trade agreement between the two countries makes economic sense.

This is considered the first step to full-fledged negotiations and an eventual agreement, which the federal government is hoping will serve as a springboard into the broader Southeast Asian region.

After officials toasted the announcement with champagne — Harper drank white grape juice — the Canadian prime minister declared the study "yet another part of Canada's ambitious trade agenda."

Harper, who is also expected to announce the launch of trade talks with Japan during a stop in Tokyo on Sunday, added that his government has made great strides on free trade in Asia and other parts of the globe.

"Obviously we have and are in the process of launching agreements throughout this region and around the world," he said, "and I'm confident some of these agreements will continue to move forward."

Shinawatra, for her part, welcomed Canada's interest in exploring the possibility of a free trade agreement with her country, and its "re-engagement with Asia and Southeast Asia, in particular" — a telling remark on what many perceive as Canada's absence from the region in recent years.

This is Harper's second visit to Asia in as many months following a high-profile tour of China in February, but the first state trip to Thailand by a Canadian prime minister since Jean Chretien was here in 1997.

The three-country tour, which includes stops in Japan and South Korea, is intended to reiterate Canada's interest in the continent after the Conservative government spent years focusing on the U.S.

Officials have privately said Canada's limited number of trade negotiators are being overworked and under a great deal of pressure, and the addition of two more major negotiations will only add to the load.

Asia-Pacific Foundation of Canada president Yuen Pau Woo said he senses an "urgency" in the Conservative government's efforts to complete a deal in Asia, particularly given the number of competitors already in region and Canada's failure to land an agreement. But simply announcing talks isn't enough.

"At the end of his current Asian tour, Canada could have as many as five Asian free trade agreements in various stages of negotiation, not including the Trans-Pacific Partnership," Woo said.

"What matters, however, is not the number of negotiations but Ottawa's ability to close deals and the quality of those agreements. On that measure, we have yet to make the scoreboard."

"It is important that Canada demonstrate its ability to negotiate with Asian trading partners," said trade consultant Peter Clark. "Every deal Canada concludes will enhance our reputation for being able to close. Too much effort goes into these negotiations to join them unless there is a good chance of reaching a mutually beneficial conclusion."

One potential advantage is Canada's energy and resource stocks, which are emerging as key focal points of interest throughout Asia, with countries like China, Japan, South Korea and even Thailand looking to power their fast-growing economies.

Harper acknowledged the role energy could play in Canada-Asia economic relations — which is why the government is pushing major projects like the Northern Gateway, which is designed to facilitate the shipment of oil and gas across the Pacific.

"Our government believes it's essential that we be able to sell our energy products outside North America, to partners and countries other than the United States," he said.

"Obviously that will require some significant infrastructure projects to go forward, and we're obviously, as we've indicated, looking at taking steps necessary to make sure we can get timely regulatory decisions on those kinds of projects."

In addition to the free trade study, Harper and Shinawatra announced the completion of a youth exchange agreement that will let individuals from each country between the ages of 18 and 30 obtain work visas.

Friday was Harper's first full day in Thailand and he started it by visiting the hospital where the country's beloved but ailing 84-year-old monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej. Harper did not meet the king, but signed a book wishing him well and passing along a vase of flowers.

Harper then travelled to Thailand's Government House, where he was warmly greeted by Shinawatra and inspected an honour guard in the sweltering heat before retiring for a private discussion with the Thai prime minister.

He also visited the Royal Palace before ending the day at a Canadian and Thai business roundtable and reception.

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