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The security risks from Canada’s fast-track Syrian refugee plan

On 3 February 2016, the US Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs held a hearing on “Canada’s Fast-Track Refugee Plan: Unanswered Questions and Implications for U.S. National Security”. Following is David Harris’s opening statement before the committee.

The new Canadian government took office committed to fast-tracking 25,000 Syrian refugees into Canada between early November 2015 and the end of that year.  Complications led the government to adjust the intake goals to 10,000 before the end of 2015 and another 15,000 prior to 1 March 2016.  By the end of January, about 15,000 had entered Canada.  Recent reports indicate that Canada might raise its target-level and take in 50,000 Syrian refugees by the end of 2016.  

Given the threat-picture in Syria and the scale of intake, security considerations require thoughtful attention.

First, recall that the US population exceeds by nine times Canada’s 35 million population.  Therefore, 25,000 refugees in Canada would be the equivalent of 225,000 refugees in the United States.  All this by 1 March. Britain, with almost twice Canada’s population, will take several years to admit 20,000.

FBI Director James Comey has highlighted the screening difficulties America would face in admitting 10,000 Syrians.  He warned that information gaps could lead to inadequate screening. If the extensive US intelligence system would have trouble security screening 10,000 Syrians in a year, how likely is it that Canada, even with valuable US assistance, could adequately screen two-and-a-half times that number in four months? 

Canada’s special fast-track processing of 25,000 Syrians in four months should be compared to the standard non-fast-track process’s 13-month timeline for government-assisted Syrian refugees and 27 months for the privately sponsored. Note that this 25,000 figure is roughly equal to Canada’s entire average annual refugee intake.

And remember the risk context. Apart from accounts of a suspected ISIS aim of penetrating international refugee streams, a Lebanese cabinet minister warned in September 2015 that at least two percent of the 1.1 million Syrians in Lebanon’s refugee camps – about 20,000 people – were connected to ISIS extremism. Canada takes refugees from Lebanese UNHCR camps. 

More generally, polls by the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies have determined that thirteen percent of Syrian refugees in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey – source countries for Canada’s Syrian migrants – had positive views of Islamic State. How many more might favour al Qaeda, al Nusra, Hezbollah, Assad militias, and other non-IS threat-groups?

In some cases, evidence for screening might be available, for example where a migrant’s traces are on an IED in Syria or Iraq.  Or where time-consuming investigation connects dots. But how readily can one gain access to a migrant’s history, when that migrant is from a hostile or chaotic country?  We cannot reliably confer with the authorities of such jurisdictions – assuming authorities exists – about many prospective refugees.

It has been suggested in Canada that the risk can be mitigated by barring unaccompanied adult Syrian males.  But people lie about their age, and many males and females below the age of majority are in ISIS ranks.  And what effect would an adult-male embargo have on at-risk adult gay and other males targeted by terrorists?

Meanwhile, in favouring women with children, and men with families, do we know who is actually married to whom and whose children are accompanying whom?  Are some ISIS fighters’ families involved?  Would they, in turn, sponsor relatives or ostensible relatives? 

Are there safety issues for existing North American minorities in a mass-movement from a homeland where the demonizing of Jews is national policy and life-threatening LGBT persecution is a crisis? And what of the importing of people from a region where anti-black racism is an especially serious matter?

Beyond this, secret German government documents reportedly claim that refugee numbers should be multiplied by a “family factor” of between four and eight, to determine how many more migrants will ultimately be sponsored by current refugees. What could future refugee-to-refugee “chain sponsorship” mean for Canadian stability and border security?

We must also ask what Canadian security resources are being diverted to the fast-track project, at a time when security agencies are already burdened by Canada’s existing annual immigration intake of almost 300,000 people, one of the biggest per capita figures in the world – at least double, per capita, the American immigration total.

In the past, there have been few newcomers to Canada crossing the US border for terrorist purposes.  But the detention at the border of failed millennium bomber Ahmed Ressam and the 1997 arrest in his Brooklyn bomb factory of Ghazi Ibrahim Abu Mezer’s remind us of the cross-border risks.  Concerns also exist that extremists could move north from the United States. There is already a chronic problem of migrants with US-granted visas from Syria and elsewhere turning up in Canada and making refugee claims.

Greater transparency in Canada’s Syrian-refugee security process would reassure Canadians and their allies. Fortunately, the current Canadian government’s stated commitment to transparency gives hope that details of the Syrian refugee security process will be made public.  Indeed, the Canadian government, through its ambassador in Washington, may have begun the process, with a recent statement.  These security-related details should include security criteria used during Syrian migrants’ security interviews; statistics regarding acceptance and rejection rates; and the record of the time spent on the security investigation and screening per refugee.

There is little doubt that those in Canada tasked with the job of screening refugees are doing the best they can given the constraints, but the constraints are significant and we must be realistic about that fact.




The featured image is a photo of the Za’atri camp for Syrian refugees in Jordan taken in 2013 (commons.wikimedia.org)