Ottawa Almost 12 per cent of people who arrived in Canada without proper documents during a six-year period were directly linked to a smuggler or escort, a federal intelligence study reveals.
"Canada has emerged as a preferred destination in the human smuggling marketplace," says the internal assessment obtained by The Canadian Press.
Each year millions of people around the globe pay others to help them slip across international borders, sometimes using fraudulent documents.
The 63-page study, Illegal Migrant Smuggling to Canada, is the result of the RCMP's Project Safehouse, an effort to get a better sense of the phenomenon and make recommendations to deal with it.
A declassified copy of the study, a joint assessment by the Mounties and Citizenship and Immigration Canada, was released under the Access to Information Act.
It examined data from 1997 through 2002 to try to pin down how much illicit migration to Canada results from smuggling activity.
During the period, 14,792 people who reached Canada or were intercepted attempting to do so had associations with an escort or facilitator someone who provided services including a travel document, air ticket, safe house or referral to people smuggling contacts.
The figure represents 11.9 per cent of the total number travelling by air, land or ship.
Canadians represented the vast majority of those who helped smuggle people from abroad by air.
Previous government estimates had pegged the number of migrants relying on people smugglers as much higher. The newly released study relied on actual cases rather than the previous overall estimates.
The report paints a dark picture of smuggling that can pose grave hardships for migrants, including dangerous modes of travel, steep fees, threats, violence, health risks and malnutrition.
It also cites numerous problems for Canada.
"There is growing evidence in the literature of a connection between human smuggling and transnational organized crime groups, terrorist organizations and the movement of individuals who pose direct threats to the security of Canada and the safety of Canadians."
Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees, called the study disappointing, saying it provides a very narrow perspective on smuggling.
Many people looking for a safe haven may have to resort to illegal means to flee serious human rights violations in their homelands, she said.
"You could talk to many refugees in Canada who would not be alive today if they had not been able to use the service of a smuggler," Ms. Dench said.
"Part of the reason why they're using smugglers is because governments of countries like Canada are busy putting up barriers to prevent refugees from getting into the country to ask for our protection."
The study also found:
Smuggling fees paid to reach Canada, which range from $20,000 to $50,000 (U.S.) per person, have increased over time.
A growing potential for smugglers to bribe Canadian authorities as the profitability of the enterprise increases.
The possibility that tighter border security since the 9/11 terrorist attacks could "force more people to rely on the services of smugglers."
The study says smugglers promote Canada as a destination by highlighting perceptions of a generous immigration regime and a chance to obtain citizenship following a successful refugee claim.
In the summer of 1999, a series of rusty ships brought more than 600 Chinese, mostly from Fujian province, to the British Columbia coast. It is believed each newcomer paid tens of thousands of dollars for passage.
Since then the government has introduced stiff penalties for smuggling and trafficking, stepped up efforts to intercept migrants at overseas points, and improved the security of Canadian travel documents.
The study says while there has been successful co-operation between the Immigration Department and RCMP on migrant smuggling, "the effort has been piecemeal, lacking a comprehensive national strategy" to provide a full understanding of the issue.
The authors call for various measures to improve the overall federal response.
RCMP spokesman Sgt. Gilles Deziel said the Mounties are working on several initiatives, including a new memorandum of understanding with the federal passport agency on sharing information about travel documents.
The RCMP is also working to "identify and shut down" the assets and money transfer channels used by people smugglers, he said.
The new Canada Border Services Agency has since taken over the relevant enforcement functions from Immigration. Neither agency would comment on the study.