The world is facing a forced-displacement crisis. There are nearly 69 million people around the world, over half of them children, who have fled their homes because of armed conflict, violence, persecution or human rights abuses including torture, sexual assault and exploitation. This is the highest number of forcibly displaced people since the Second World War, and the numbers continue to rise daily.

As someone who had to make the decision to leave a country in the middle of the night, I know the decision to flee is not an easy one. It is fraught with peril and fear. It paralyzes you. I am, of course, relieved that it worked out for me and my family and that we were lucky enough to be welcomed in Canada.

But that is not always the case for people who are forced to leave. Many of the displaced of today live in squalor; there is little food, fresh water is scarce, there is disease, and danger lurks everywhere. Sex and human trafficking are growth industries. Resettlement is an option that reaches only the lucky few – less than 0.5 percent.

Countries like Bangladesh, Uganda and now Colombia have opened their doors to let in desperate people. In doing this, they are taking the humanitarian approach, but there is no doubt that they have put their own resources under enormous strain.

As the World Refugee Council has pointed out, forced displacement is often the result of bad governance, violent and oppressive regimes or governments failing or refusing to protect their own people. These are very often the regimes that are corrupt. They steal from their treasuries and place the money in other assets offshore for the unlawful benefit of the rulers and their associates.

I recently tabled Bill S-259, the Frozen Assets Repurposing Act. This is a proposal put forward by the World Refugee Council, of which I am a member. This bill will go after corrupt foreign leaders and dictators who perpetrate grave crimes against their people, including human rights abuses and mass forced displacement. It will make them pay for their crimes with their own ill-gotten gains.

Calling them out is not enough. They need to pay.

Canada can already freeze the assets of corrupt foreign officials, thanks to the Justice for Victims of Corrupt Foreign Officials Act (Sergei Magnitsky Law) and other sanctions regimes. This bill proposes the next step, an essential one. It will enable Canada to seize and confiscate assets held in Canada, through court order, and repurpose and direct these assets to help the very people who have been harmed, including those who have been forced to flee their homes. This will increase accountability in two ways: by eliminating the impunity with which kleptocrats hide their money in safe havens, and  by redirecting their purloined wealth back to those harmed by their misrule.

The attorney general of Canada, acting on behalf of the government, would make an application to a provincial superior court. The attorney general would decide whether to do this only after discussions with the minister of foreign affairs and other cabinet colleagues, using reports and documents from reputable sources, including journalists, academics, human-rights organizations and fact-finding missions concerning the persons in question, their role in corruption and the impact of their actions on people. The court would decide, based on evidence, whether the confiscation should proceed. The court would give notice, hear witnesses and weigh evidence, including from the representatives of the foreign officials.

If the court decides to proceed with asset confiscation, it would set out in its ruling the criteria and the plan for distribution of the assets. It would decide which entity, such as the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) or a nongovernmental organization, is best placed to receive the assets, and would also decide on the means to monitor the implementation of the order, which would provide accountability and transparency.

Here is a practical example. In 2018, the UNHCR reported that 5,000 people were leaving Venezuela every day for neighbouring countries such as Colombia and Peru. All told, that’s 3.4 million people fleeing in search of protection. Canada has frozen the assets of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. If the bill passes, the courts would be empowered to confiscate those assets, repurpose them to help Venezuelans in need and provide much-needed accountability for the funds.

The court would have the ability to direct the seized assets to an internationally recognized institution such as the UNHCR or a nongovernmental organization such as Médecins sans Frontières, or to a neighbouring country or even the country of origin.

By redirecting stolen money for the benefit of those who have suffered the most, this bill seeks to create a source of financing and provide urgently needed resources for the displaced of the world. The bill also sends a strong message to corrupt leaders: If you steal from your people, you will pay. Your impunity will come to an end.

Photo: Shutterstock / by StringerAL

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Ratna Omidvar
Ratna Omidvar is an independent senator from Ontario.

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