Manitobans who work with newcomers say reforms announced by the federal government Thursday will hurt refugees and won't stop human smuggling.
"It's very simply like going after the drug pusher on the corner, where they're visible, sometimes not so smart and easier to catch," said Ed Wiebe with the Mennonite Central Committee.
"(Politically) it looks like you're doing something but, behind him, there are 10 more willing to do it," he said.
The complex bill tabled Thursday increases penalties for those caught supporting human smuggling, and extends penalties to people who had any contact with such operations, including the owners and operators of ships used to bring people in.
In an attempt to stop smuggling ships from landing on Canada's shores, the bill also empowers the public safety minister to decide whether a migrant's arrival in Canada is deemed "irregular" and subject to harsher treatment.
Those "irregular" asylum-seekers would be put on a five-year probation, forbidding them from leaving Canada or applying to sponsor their families to come to Canada. The bill would also allow detention of these asylum-seekers for up to a year.
"It's penalizing refugees themselves who are in dire need of protection," said Wanda Yamamoto who's worked and volunteered at the Manitoba Interfaith Immigration Council for nearly 30 years.
The proposed legislation would impose a 10-year mandatory minimum jail sentence on human smugglers ushering in more than 50 people at time, officials say.
"It's not going to stop anybody," said Yamamoto, who's also president of the Canadian Council for Refugees.
"Refugees who are fleeing persecution are going to find a way to get to Canada. If they have to use a smuggler, they're prepared to do whatever they have to get out of their country to be in a safe place," she said.
The reforms would just make their life tougher and more costly, added Yamamoto, manager of volunteer services and outreach at Welcome Place.
She's especially concerned about what happens to the children who arrive under the new rules.
"They're at risk," she said, trying to understand what happens to "irregular" detainees' kids left behind or placed in care or sent back to the country they fled.
Public Safety Minister Vic Toews said at a news conference in Vancouver the new rules are a necessity.
The Tories promised to get tough on human-smuggling operations after a boatload of almost 500 Tamil migrants arrived off Vancouver in August -- the second such incident in less than a year.
"The fact that these two vessels reached our shores in less than 12 months clearly demonstrates that human-smuggling networks are targeting Canada as a destination and they believe our generous immigration system can be exploited for profit," said Toews.
"Are these measure tough? Yes, undoubtedly ...but they are also fair," Toews added, "fair to those who legitimately and legally wait or have waited in line for a better life in Canada, and fair for all Canadians."
The Tamils forced to flee their country were desperate, and had no queue to jump, said Yamamoto who called that "nonsense coming from the government."
-- With files from Canadian Press