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'Thorough' refugee screening puts Canada at low security risk, says former refugee official

Former head of Canada's Immigration and Refugee Board, Peter Showler, says there is very little risk that a potential terrorist will enter Canada among the 25,000 refugees the federal government has promised to bring here by the end of the year.
Syrian refugees wait at the port of Lesbos island, Greece, to board a ferry traveling to Athens, on Monday, Sept. 7, 2015. (Petros Giannakouris/Associated Press)
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In the wake of the attacks in Paris, some leaders in Canada are calling on the government to suspend its refugee settlement plan because of security risks. The federal government has promised to resettle 25,000 refugees by the end of 2015.

Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall has now asked Ottawa to halt its plan for now, arguing the initiative was put forward hastily, during the election.

Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall says Canada's refugee initiative must make safety a priority and not be quota or deadline driven. 1:07

But those familiar with the refugee resettlement process say the concerns are unwarranted.  With thorough security screening, potential terrorists are unlikely to be able to enter the country along with asylum seekers.

Peter Showler is the former head of Canada's Immigration and Refugee Board. He knows the screening process firsthand and spoke with As It Happens host Carol Off about why the plan poses little threat to Canada.  Here is an excerpt from their conversation.

Carol Off: Mr. Showler, is the speed of the resettlement process a concern?

Peter Showler: Well, not the way in which Mr. Wall portrays it. It's perhaps going too far to say it's fear mongering, but I will say that he clearly does not understand the security review process of resettled refugees and I am bothered by the fact that he's linking it to the events in Paris. Simply because, that huge 700,000 refugee flow that poured into southern, and then western Europe, there were no security reviews there at all. Whereas, there always has been a quite thorough security screen, or actually a three-phase security screen, that's been used for resettled refugees and that would even be a different screen, and in my view a more effective one for the 25,000.

CO: Okay, so if the refugees who would be coming to Canada are not those hundreds of thousands we have been seeing, crossing the Mediterranean and going into Europe, where are the refugees coming from that would be coming to Canada?

PS: Well, the government has already said that they would be coming primarily, if not exclusively, from three countries: Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. These are refugees who are either located in camps and that would be particularly in Jordan and Turkey, or in Lebanon, although they are scattered throughout the country, they are registered refugees with UNHCR. We know who these people are and we know when they fled Syria.

CO: And how do we know who these people are?


PS: We know it several ways. For the 25,000, we can identify a lot of refugees who clearly would not fall within the ISIS or Sunni extremist category. The starting point for that would be children and secondly women, particularly women who are now heads of single household families. There are a lot in that position. Secondly, we know a significant number who were the most severe victims of that violence and fled early. Lastly, we know the ones, particularly the ones that fled three and four years ago, when that conflict first started. Some of the first victims who fled were primarily urban, professional, middle-class, who were secular. They were pro-democratic and they opposed the dictatorship of Mr. Assad.

Peter Showler is the former head of Canada's Immigration and Refugee Board. (Peter Showler)

CO: But obviously, there are men among them, they're not just going to be women and children. As Brad Wall is saying, if there is just one who is in that mix, it's one too many. So what is the screening that would ensure that we're not going to get someone who manages to somehow game the system and get through?

PS: It may be modified slightly for this humanitarian program, but what happens now is first of all the United Nations High Commission for Refugees does a major triage and selects people that possibly are available for resettlement. Let me emphasize that's about two to three per cent of the refugees that are there. They primarily look for vulnerability but they also, of course, exclude certain categories of people that might come within what they would call 'exclusion activities.' To put it in English, ones that might have been involved in any way in the conflict itself.
[Jason] Kenney has an established track record that has, candidly, been quite hostile to the refugee process in general and particularly the one coming out of Syria- Peter Showler

That's the first thing they do and then they interview them. Then they refer them to a visa officer who does a one-hour interview and that's where the officer tries to assure himself or herself that the story of the person in front of them is consistent with the story in the file. The third phase of that process is where they are referred for formal security review. That's where their names are run through the databases of the RCMP, of CSIS, of Canada Border Services Agency and other international databases. What would be different, I'm anticipating although it has not been announced yet by the government, is that they will be far more careful with the categories of the person. Less focus on vulnerability and making sure that they will fall into categories of people that from the ground view would have nothing to do with any of the extremist Sunni organization.

The UN World Food Program says it has suspended a food voucher program serving more than 1.7 million Syrian refugees because of a funding crisis. (Mohammed Zaatari/Associated Press)

CO: Finally, what we've seen is the potential for radicalization. People who look on paper to be okay then get involved, they fall in with the wrong people. Once they get here, how do we screen for that potential?

PS: Well that is incredibly difficult. That's a very different question and I must say it's a toughie.  The only way we deal with it is the way in which Canada has consistently dealt with immigration flows in general. We have a society that is not only open and inclusive, we make sure that we have access to employment, access to education, access to all of the parts of our functioning society that make it easier for them to integrate into Canada over the long range.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

To hear the full interview please click on the Listen audio link above.

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