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Rights + Justice

Canada Should Make Corrupt Dictators Pay for Refugees They Create

Every politician should support a bill letting government use seized assets to pay for global refugee support.

Paula Ethans 30 Sep

Paula Ethans (@PaulaEthans) is a human rights lawyer who’s been called to the Bar in Ontario. Paula is currently working as a fellow at the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights in their migration section.

Immigration has become one of the most pressing and divisive issues in this federal election campaign.

But there’s at least one migration policy that every politician should support — a law giving the Canadian government the ability to seize the assets of foreign dictators and use the money to support refugees fleeing their tyranny.

In the last few years, Canada has been fraught with debates on migration. Are we resettling too many refugees? Why are so many people crossing the border? Misconceptions, inaccuracies and outright lies have run amok, with certain journalists and politicians stoking the xenophobic fire.

While some migration policies, like the Safe Third Country Agreement, are controversial and increasingly partisan, there is one proposed change that should be backed by every politician and party. 

In March, with the support of the World Refugee Council, Senator Ratna Omidvar tabled Bill S-259, The Frozen Assets Repurposing Act.

Canada already has the Justice for Victims of Corrupt Foreign Officials Act, which allows government, with a court order, to seize the Canadian assets of dictators and corrupt officials and bar them from entering the country.

Omidvar’s bill would take the next step and allow those assets — real estate, bank accounts or cash reserves, for example — to be used to support refugees forced to flee tyranny and corruption.

In other words, it would take the ill-gotten gains of the “bad guys” and use it to help the very people they’ve harmed.

Every politician should support the legislation.

The bill is a humanitarian, non-partisan initiative that is fiscally responsible and tough on crime. Even politicians who don’t normally seek opportunities to support migrants can get on board with this policy. There’s something for everyone.

For those who believe in Canada’s legacy of humanitarianism, this bill is an easy sell. We have long led the world in accepting migrants, recognizing their inherent worth and helping them reach their potential. This bill continues that legacy.

For those tough on crime, Bill S-259 redirects dirty money from dictators and corrupt officials — who have some $20 billion to $40 billion stashed away globally — to those whose lives have been shattered by their actions. It sends a strong message to corrupt leaders and their cronies: you’ll have to pay for your crimes, literally.

The bill would also boost accountability. The World Refugee Council notes that forced displacement is often the result of bad governance, oppressive regimes or governments failing or refusing to protect their people. Most often, these regimes are corrupt.

As Omidvar has said, Bill S-259 would increase accountability by eliminating the freedom corrupt officials have historically been given to hide their assets in safe havens and redirecting these illicit funds back to those they’ve harmed.

Further, Bill S-259 creates a mechanism to ensure the punishment fits the crime. For example, the bill would see the frozen assets of Burmese military generals, who have persecuted the Rohingya population for decades and recently driven one million people to flee to Bangladesh, used to help Rohingya migrants suffering in one of the world’s largest refugee settlements.

Even for those who see the global refugee crisis as a threat to Canada, like People’s Party Leader Maxime Bernier, who has argued that people born abroad are not truly “Canadian,” Bill S-259 should be appealing. In fact, it’s exactly the kind of policy conservative politicians can support. The bill doesn’t require Canada to do anything for refugees. We don’t use our own money, we don’t share our social services, we don’t accept anyone into our communities — we simply redistribute someone else’s money to other parts of the world where migrants struggle.

The bill, while innovative and creative, is not the first of its kind. If passed, Canada would follow in the footsteps of Switzerland, which adopted the Foreign Illicit Assets Act in 2015. The act allows Switzerland to seek a court order to seize frozen assets of foreign dictators and repatriate them to the country of origin to provide humanitarian aid.

As former foreign affairs minister Lloyd Axworthy has said, the international community doesn’t have proper processes in place to cope with the unprecedented levels of forced migration, and one of the biggest issues is how the bills are paid. It’s currently charity based, entirely dependent on the goodwill of richer countries, and it’s not working. In fact, UNHCR — the United Nations Refugee Agency — has never reached more than 60 per cent of its funding targets.

We are facing the largest migrant crisis in our history; 68.5 million people worldwide are displaced. The least we can do is use the dirty money of dictators to clean up the mess they’ve made. Every politician should be on board with that.  [Tyee]

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