British Columbia·Analysis

Syrian refugee screening will be a challenge, but one Canada can meet

Concerns have been raised about the security ramifications of welcoming 25,000 Syrian refugees to Canada, but experts say even justified fears shouldn't derail humanitarian efforts.

Man who led Vietnamese refugee program says humanitarian efforts shouldn't be derailed by fear

The Liberal government's commitment to bring in 25,000 Syrian refugees by the end of the year has raised questions about security screening, but experts say there are ways to do it, given the right resources. (Lefteris Pitarakis/Associated Press)

As the immigration minister who brought nearly 60,000 refugees from a wartorn region into Canada, Ron Atkey is well-versed in fear.

Back then — in 1979 — rumour had it the ranks of Vietnamese migrants were riddled with communists planning to exploit the generosity of gullible Westerners to establish a foothold overseas.

A Chicago Tribune headline of the day told the story: "Fake Viet 'boat people' map U.S. spy network."

Fast forward 36 years, and Atkey sees parallels to the current federal government's plans to bring in 25,000 Syrian refugees by year end.

It's easy to see why the carnage in Paris last Friday raises concerns about the possibility of militants slipping through immigration security checks. But what is the alternative?

"It's a difficult choice because if you fail, it's on you," Atkey says. "But if you fail to act, it's also on you. And with that goes leadership."

Fear of any error

The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has claimed responsibility for the Paris attacks, which left at least 129 people dead.

But beyond the sheer horror of the killings, the tragedy has heightened pre-existing questions about the feasibility and wisdom of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's deadline for bringing Syrian refugees to Canada.

Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall has questioned the wisdom of the federal government's plan, though he acknowledged the vast majority of refugees 'pose no threat.' (Trent Peppler/CBC News)

The fear of making a mistake has been further ratcheted up by some evidence that a refugee claimant fingerprinted in Greece might have been one of the seven dead Paris assailants.

Critics fear ISIS will use the exodus of refugees fleeing violence in the Middle East as cover to plant operatives in the West.

Some, like Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall, have called on Trudeau to suspend the plan. A B.C. man has started a petition calling for a referendum on the issue.

A history of screening

Fear may be understandable, but it ignores the reality of life in the United Nations camps housing the refugees Canada plans to accept — not to mention this country's established practice of screening migrants for connections to groups designated as terrorist.

"We have to have confidence that the immigration officials involved know what they're doing and will do the job properly," Toronto immigration lawyer Lorne Waldman says.

"It may well mean that all the people may not be able to come as quickly as possible, but at the end of the day, when the people get here, Canadians should have trust that they've been properly screened and they don't pose a threat."

Waldman says immigration security controls have always existed, but became heightened after the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackings in the U.S. 

Canada's screening processes have been tested in recent years by boatloads of migrants arriving from Sri Lanka.

The arrival off 492 migrants off the coast of B.C. aboard the MV Sun Sea in 2010 led to particular challenges. In immigration proceedings, the government argued members of the Tamil Tigers might be hidden among legitimate asylum seekers.

Refugee claimants were incarcerated for months while their identity was confirmed; eleven were revealed to be members of the Tigers.

Visa officers have ear to the ground

A boatload of unknown faces landing on Canadian shores is a very different situation to the thousands of Syrian refugees Canada is expected to draw from refugee camps in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.

Many will have already been cleared by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

Atkey says the first line of defence in 2015 — as it was in 1979 — will lie with visa officers on the ground, trained to be alive to scuttlebutt, suspicion and rumours within the camps.

Over 18 months in 1979-80, Canada took in 60,000 refugees displaced by the conflict in Vietnam. (K. Gaugler/AFP/Getty Images)

Many of those refugees will have been waiting for years; their flight from Syria may well pre-date ISIS.

Waldman says immigration authorities will have developed security profiles of applicants who demand "enhanced screening" by RCMP and CSIS. The very young and the very elderly may be processed quicker, as well as women with children. Single men are obviously more likely to undergo heavy scrutiny.

To that end, Waldman says the government will likely issue a mixture of permanent and temporary residence permits, because the security checks won't necessarily stop once applicants arrive in Canada.

Federal Court files are filled with appeals and battles between the citizenship and immigration minister and refugees accused of membership in groups designated as terrorist organizations. Old associations and memberships are scrutinized, as are friendships, movement and social media activity.

Not 'strategic' to pose as refugees

University of Victoria international security expert Scott Watson believes Canada has the capacity to properly screen the Syrian refugees, but he fears resources may be strained by a decade of budget cuts. 

To some degree, Watson says, you couldn't pick a worse way to infiltrate a country than arriving through a refugee camp. The wait lasts years. For some it never ends.

And the very act of declaring asylum means inviting intense scrutiny.

"We haven't had many cases of people fleeing into camps, then being resettled to undertake terrorist attacks," he says. 

"It's not really a strategic use of resources to have potential fighters sitting in camps for years awaiting resettlement — in the off chance they get resettled."

No one should dismiss the concerns raised by the attacks in Paris.

But history has also provided examples of what happens when Canada does nothing: from 1933 to 1945, we lagged behind the Western world in accepting Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany.

In 2011, Halifax commemorated a sad but vital part of Canadian history with a monument to nearly 1,000 Jews denied entrance to Canada in 1939. They sought sanctuary aboard the ocean liner St. Louis. 

Atkey read a book about that failure of policy in 1979: None is Too Many. He says it inspired him to help the Vietnamese boat people. He recommends it to anyone currently wondering what to do about Syria.


Jason Proctor


Jason Proctor is a reporter in British Columbia for CBC News and has covered the B.C. courts and the justice system extensively.