Trucker who smuggled 11 Nigerians across bridge hopes to avoid jail

A trucker who claimed he had no idea there were 11 people crowded behind a curtain in the driver’s cab of his commercial rig as he crossed the Ambassador Bridge in 2017 is hoping a Windsor judge might see his human smuggling action as that of a Good Samaritan.

It was actually the judge who brought up that term during a sentencing hearing on Tuesday for Paul Ngoue-Ngamelou to describe a possible motivation behind his efforts to illegally conceal the would-be refugee stowaways

Like the three female adults and eight children being snuck into Canada on Sept. 21, 2017, Ngoue-Ngamelou, 46, had himself been a refugee claimant from west Africa eight years earlier.

There was no evidence during his human smuggling trial a year ago to suggest the trucker ferried the Nigerian nationals across the Ambassador Bridge for financial gain, said Superior Court Justice Thomas Carey, who suggested Ngoue-Ngamelou may have been “trying to help out fellow country persons.”

The judge said he had “difficulty” accepting the Crown’s position that the number of vulnerable stowaways and how they were crammed into the sleeper portion of the truck cab should be considered an “aggravating” feature in determining the appropriate punishment.

Prosecutor Alexa Posliff argued for a jail term of two years less a day, while defence lawyer Ken Golish argued for no incarceration, proposing instead a period of probation or a conditional sentence to be served at home.

Golish said there was no evidence of prior planning. Ngoue-Ngamelou told the court at trial that he and co-driver Henadez Makia Mbeh, returning from the west coast, had been approached at their last Michigan stop by a fellow Nigerian after parking and before entering a rest stop.

Due to some paperwork discrepancies at the border an hour’s drive later, the pair was advised by Canadian customs at the bridge to go to secondary inspection but were soon nabbed for attempting to ignore that direction. It was then that Canada Border Services Agency officers discovered the three women and their eight children who had been in the United States on visitors’ visas.

The judge on Tuesday made note of the flood of refugee claimants across “irregular border crossings” into Canada at the time, “attributable to the election of former President Trump.” The judge said Ngoue-Ngamelou’s attempted border run — he was quickly nabbed as his commercial rig was forced to stop in traffic nearby due to a train crossing Huron Church Road — could be seen as an effort “to complete his mission to get these people safely into Canada.”

But unlike the thousands of other refugee claimants flowing across unguarded portions of Canada’s border at the time — the RCMP intercepted over 28,000 foreigners between January 2017 and April 2018 — the 11 stowaways who came into Windsor aboard that truck on Sept. 21, 2017, were quickly deported by the CBSA.

Posliff said there was “no reason” the three women couldn’t have made valid refugee claims once discovered, but the court heard no evidence they were ever interviewed before being sent back to the U.S.

Under a treaty between Canada and the United States, refugee claims can be blocked for people arriving from either country to the other, but the Canada–United States Safe Third Country Agreement refers specifically to those from third countries arriving at official border points.