Harper takes aim at human smuggling with cash and equipment for Thai police

Murray Brewster, The Canadian Press

BANGKOK - Prime Minister Stephen Harper turned the focus from trade to human smuggling on his last day in Thailand.

His government has set aside $12 million over two years to help detect and prevent human smuggling operations.

Roughly $7 million of the new fund will go toward projects in southeast Asia with Thailand being a major beneficiary.

The Royal Thai police force's marine unit will get new communications and navigation equipment, among other support.

“Thailand is an important partner in efforts to reduce human smuggling and terrorism in Southeast Asia,” Harper said prior to a tightly controlled tour of the police force's marine dock.

“The support being announced today (Saturday) will help the Thai government make the country safer for its citizens and foreign travellers, and ensure it is not used as a conduit for human smuggling.”

Harper toured the flagship of the police marine unit, did not take any questions, and Canadian reporters travelling with him were kept at bay.

In his statement, he suggested the program, known as the Anti-Crime Capacity Building Program, could eventually be expanded elsewhere.

The Conservative government says Thailand is both a source and a transit point for illegal migrants who want to make Canada their final destination.

Officials point to the boat carrying roughly 500 Sri Lankan Tamils, which arrived off the B.C. coast in August 2010.

The MV Sun Sea was from Thailand and those aboard claimed refugee status after their transit was arranged by a human smuggling ring.

"Several illegal operations have been blocked and boats have been stopped before they can sail for Canada’s shores," Harper said.

At least one other attempted smuggling was broken up before it got underway off Indonesia.

Former Canadian Security Intelligence Director Ward Elcock, Harper's special adviser on the issue, said it's hard to know the full scope of the threat, which is mostly coming from highly-organized groups in Sri Lanka.

But he sees tighter immigration laws and law enforcement as the key to snuffing out the practise.

"If you get the right legislation mix, the demand will drop and the ability of the criminal groups to actually profit from it; they'll cease to be able to profit," he said.

In January, the government re-introduced legislation meant to discourage ships loaded with asylum seekers from arriving off Canada's coasts.

The bill allows Immigration Minister Jason Kenney to designate such claimants as “irregular arrivals.”

That would make them subject to detention for up to a year while their identity is checked and their claims processed.

Some critics say the issue of human smuggling is overblown and point to the fact that no other migrant ship has made it to Canadian waters.

Elcock, however, says that's because of successful disruption operations by law enforcement.

The initiative announced Saturday also dovetails with ongoing counter-terrorism plans and contains a sprinkling of cash to help Thai authorities respond to chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear threats.

Those issues will get a more thorough airing later in Harper's Asian trip when he meets with 52 other world leaders at a nuclear security summit in Seoul, South Korea.

The new arrangement, which will be funded out of the current budget and the one being handed down next week, was signed by Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird with the head of the Royal Thai police as part of a security co-operation agreement.

The remainder of the cash — roughly $5 million — will be spent on training police and immigration officers in Cambodia, Indonesia, Lao People's Democratic Republic, Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam.