Sunday November 22, 2015

The truth about Syrian refugees and how they'll get here: Michael Enright

A Syrian refugee child who fled the violence from the Syrian town of Flita, near Yabroud, poses for a photograph at the border town of Arsal, in the eastern Bekaa Valley March 20, 2014.

A Syrian refugee child who fled the violence from the Syrian town of Flita, near Yabroud, poses for a photograph at the border town of Arsal, in the eastern Bekaa Valley March 20, 2014. (Hassan Abdallah/Reuters)

Listen 4:23

The man at the back of the church hall was well-dressed, articulate, in his mid sixties. He asked the question which was probably on the minds of other parishioners. 

"If we take in all these Syrian refugees, aren't we in fact bringing in a lot of terrorists?" 

It is a question on the minds of many Canadians. And it's a legitimate one. It would be wrong and supremely unfair to accuse the man in the church and the thousands of other Canadians who feel the same way, of being xenophobic. The events in Paris and a year ago in Ottawa and Quebec have put people on edge. They are fretful.

A Forum poll at week's end showed that 51 per cent of Canadians are opposed to the government plan. Fear makes people do unpleasant things. In the United States, terrified Republican governors have urged the borders be closed to Syrian refugees. Social media contributors have suggested the same thing. Often the language of rejection is brutal, sometimes racist. Hard line right wing pundits in Canada are in full panic mode, fearing for their very lives. 

Simply put, the fear is that among the refugees will lurk terrorist agents who are coming to Canada to do great harm. But the argument makes little sense. Why would a terrorist spend two years in a refugee camp or risk death on the open seas when he or she could simply buy a plane ticket and fly here? 

As Catherine Solyom of The Montreal Gazette points out, those who carried out the attacks in Paris were Belgian or French citizens and could, if they wished, come to Canada without even a visa. 

It is important for us to understand that any refugees coming to Canada will come from refugee camps in Lebanon and Jordan. They are not from among the boat people or the migrants walking across Europe.

Syrian children in refugee camp

Syrian refugee boys help their mother in breaking wood to be added under a fire to boil water outside their family's tent at a refugee camp in the town of Hosh Hareem, in the Bekaa valley, east Lebanon. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)


Secondly, no Syrian gets into Canada without being screened, re-screened and screened again. The process begins in the host country, with each refugee being interviewed at length by a refugee protection officer from the UN. The questioning is detailed and rigorous. Their concern is for people who are at risk, who have been tortured, or are women and girls in physical danger. 

Then a Canadian visa officer takes over and questions the refugee all over again. All documentation is closely scrutinized to weed out any forgeries. 

Then the file goes on to the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, CSIS. It is run against various databases of the Canada Border Services Agency, CSIS itself, Interpol and databases in other countries. If CSIS, operating on the information it receives sees a potential threat, the application will surely be refused.    

This is not the first time Canadians and Americans have worried about sleeper terrorists hiding in a migrant population. In 1938, more than 80 per cent of Americans believed that Jews should not be admitted to the US, as they might be Nazi agents, spies or communists. Canada turned away 908 Jewish refugees aboard the SS St. Louis in 1939. During the 1970s, as Canada was taking in more than 60,000 Vietnamese boat people, concerns were raised that among them might be committed communists or Viet Cong.

It is a daunting task for this country to take in 25,000 Syrian refugees by the end of the year, as promised by the Liberals during the campaign. And it matters little if the deadline is missed by a month or two. The mission is to bring these wretched people out of harm's way and to a safe, welcoming refuge. It is eminently doable.