Court rules that helping refugees is a criminal offence

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Media Release

For immediate release
30 April 2014

Court rules that helping refugees is a criminal offence in Canada

The Canadian Council for Refugees (CCR) is deeply disappointed at the decision of the BC Court of Appeal in Appulonappa, which concludes that Parliament intended to make it a criminal offence to help refugees, on a humanitarian basis, and that the Charter allows it.

The Court overturned a decision of the BC Supreme Court that ruled Canada’s law on human smuggling overbroad, because it criminalizes humanitarian actions of individuals who are helping refugees seek protection in Canada, including refugee workers and people helping their family members.

The Court of Appeal decided instead that the law was deliberately drafted to be broad enough to cover such humanitarian situations and that this was acceptable, despite Canada’s international obligations towards refugees. The Court states that “Parliament intended to create a broad offence with no exceptions, directed to concerns of border control.” While the Court recognizes that there may be “difficult and sensitive cases”, it suggests that these can be addressed by prosecutorial discretion, expecting that “common sense will prevail”. This will be no comfort for the many individuals, including humanitarian workers and family members of refugees, who know that they may face prosecution for their actions helping people make a refugee claim in Canada.

The decision confirms a growing trend in Canada of closing the doors on refugees. Canada is losing its international leadership role in refugee protection. The decision sends a chilling message to Canadians that the court views aiding and abetting refugees not as a noble moral and legal obligation, but as a crime against the sovereignty of our borders.

The decision underlines once again the gaping hole in international and Canadian law, which recognizes the fundamental human right to seek asylum from persecution, but provides no way for refugees to get to a country of asylum.

The CCR hopes that the Supreme Court of Canada will resolve the interpretation of the definition of smuggling in a manner that complies with our international legal obligations towards refugees. The question is at issue in two cases that have recently been granted leave by the Supreme Court.

The CCR was an intervener in Appulonappa, raising in particular the impact of the smuggling provisions on humanitarian workers. In 2007, the CCR led a campaign, known as “Proud to aid and abet refugees”, to oppose the criminal charges laid against a US church worker for assisting refugees make a claim at the Canadian border.

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Contact:

Colleen French, Communication and Networking Coordinator, Canadian Council for Refugees, 514-277-7223, ext. 1, 514-476-3971 (cell), cfrench@ccrweb.ca