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Hunt is on for Romanians believed to be part of human smuggling ring

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OTTAWA - The hunt is on for 45 Romanian adults and children smuggled into Canada.

Government officials said Wednesday the missing are among 85 people who entered the country illegally at intervals stretching back to February.

Authorities have found 40 of them so far, and 30 of these were detained under new immigration law provisions that saw the entire group designated as part of an "irregular arrival," which essentially means a human-smuggling operation.

"We open our arms to true immigrants and true refugees who follow the rules and who wait for their turn in line," Immigration Minister Jason Kenney said at a news conference in Stanstead, Que., a town that borders the United States and is believed to have been the entry point for the group.

"We will not tolerate those who are abusing our generosity or who are tricking their way in."

Kenney said those involved in smuggling the individuals are part of the investigation.

The first of five waves of Romanian nationals began arriving in Canada in February, officials said Wednesday.

They were part of what was described as a sophisticated smuggling ring that saw people travel to Mexico, cross illegally into the United States, drive north to Canada and sneak in over unmarked border crossings in Quebec.

Another group arrived in April and three more followed in October, packed into what Kenney said officials told him were rented sports utility vehicles.

Altogether 50 adults and 35 people under the age of 16 were brought into Canada and spread out throughout Ontario and Quebec, though most are believed to be in the Toronto-area, officials said.

The New Democrats said the cases highlight concerns they've been raising for months over that very border crossing.

"What this really shows today is a failure by the minister of Public Safety to devote adequate resources to keeping the border safe," said New Democrat MP Randall Garrison.

"So the only reason human smuggling can go on is because of the cutbacks and the lack of resources at Stanstead."

The last three groups arrived roughly three months after the government enacted new immigration laws they said would deter those who illegally enter Canada and then claim refugee status.

The new laws allow the minister of Public Safety to designate a group of immigrants as an "irregular arrival" which subjects them to immediate detention, a five-year wait to apply for permanent residency and restrictions on sponsoring their families to come to Canada.

Some many also have to regularly report in person to immigration officials.

"The facts I have reviewed have provided me with reasonable grounds to suspect that these arrivals have occurred as part of a human smuggling operation ... for profit or in association with a criminal organization," Public Safety Minister Vic Toews said in a statement.

It is the first time the government has used the new law since it came into effect in June, and the mandatory detention provisions don't apply to anyone in the group who arrived in Canada before then.

Those who were jailed will have a detention review after 14 days and again at six months.

Those under the age of 16 are not subject to mandatory detention; officials said 35 people in the group meet that criteria.

The mandatory detention provisions of the Protecting Canada's Immigration System Act provoked much debate when they were first introduced.

The Canadian Civil Liberties Association and others decried the provisions as unethical and unconstitutional.

Initially, there was no detention review provided for up to a year, unless the individual was proven to be a genuine refugee.

There are also concerns that the bill unfairly penalized people who are victims of human smuggling operations and who had no choice in whether they came to Canada.

The final version gave the Public Safety minister the power to exempt individuals considered to be vulnerable from mandatory detention and other provisions of the law.

Interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae said the idea of rounding up groups of would-be refugees and detaining them runs counter to Canadian and international legal principles.

"If you say there's a group of people who come and we're going to put them in jail and deal with it in a different way, the problem that I've always had with that is that it takes away from the notion that each case has to be dealt with as an individual," he said.

The announcement of the discovery of the smuggling ring comes the week before Kenney is set to unveil a list of countries from which refugee claimants will receive extra scrutiny.

The designated country of origin list is expected to include several European Union countries which the government says are sources of large number of refugee claims by Roma, known in the English-speaking world as Gypsies.

The government says most of those claims end up being abandoned or rejected.

In September, Durham Regional Police in Ontario announced they'd stopped a crime ring involving a number of Roma involved in theft and fraud.

At the time, the police alleged that those arrested were smuggling people into Canada from Romania in order to take part in the crimes.

Kenney said 12 of the people connected to smuggling investigation were facing criminal charges but it wasn't immediately clear whether there was a direct link to the Durham investigation.

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