In The Media

Syrian refugees pose low risk, but no reason to rush process, experts say

(feat. Kyle Matthews)

CBC News
November 18, 2015

Justin Trudeau's plan to resettle 25,000 Syrian refugees in Canada by the end of the year has raised concerns about whether the prime minister's adherence to the fast-approaching deadline could compromise the security of the country.

Citing the deadly attacks in Paris, Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall on Monday called on Trudeau to suspend his plan, arguing that "if a small number of individuals who wish to do harm to our country are able to enter Canada as a result of a rushed refugee resettlement process, the results could be devastating."

While Trudeau has dismissed such concerns, some security experts suggest that trying to process that many refugees in such short time is not without risk, however slight, and that the prime minister doesn't need to rush the effort.

"I very much hope that in the end, that they will have removed Dec. 31 as part of the plan and say, 'We''re going to do it and we'll get it done when we get it done,'" said Peter Showler, the former head of Canada's Immigration and Refugee Board.

As for whether Canadians should be concerned about security risks from Syrian refugees, Showler said, "I would say no — until you put in '[coming] by the end of the year,' and then I would say I don't know."

The evidence, so far, that refugees pose risks in North America has been scant. A recent article in the Economist points out that of the 745,000 refugees resettled in the U.S. since Sept. 11, only two have been arrested on terrorism-related charges, and those had not planned any kind of attack. Meanwhile, Canada has taken in nearly 265,000 refugees from 2005 to 2014. 

However, those refugees underwent a rigorous screening process, one that can take years. Trudeau is hoping to resettle 25,000 refugees in a matter of weeks.

"I'm hoping that we will perhaps decelerate the intake a little bit," said Ray Boisvert, former CSIS assistant director of intelligence.

While the risk to Canadians is relatively small, within that group of 25,000 people there will be a very small percentage of individuals who would be considered potential threats to security, Boisvert said.

"There could be people in that flow that might or may not be engineered to be there on behalf of ISIS, but could be very sympathetic and could be highly radicalized," Boisvert said.

Risk in cutting corners

Kyle Matthews, the senior deputy director for the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies at Concordia University, said there's a very small risk to Canadians, but that the government's goal is "very ambitious" with only weeks remaining to screen and process everyone. 

"I'm not too sure that that can be achieved that quickly,' he said. "You have to do it as best as you can as quickly as you can, but you shouldn't cut corners."

If the government gives itself a bit more time, Showler said, Canada could still identify, screen and process 25,000 low risk refugees relatively quickly.

"There are certain objective criteria where you can ID a very large group of refugees, all of whom would be in extremely low-risk security categories," Showler said. 

Unlike refugees flowing into parts of Europe, who undergo no security reviews, any Syrian refugee coming into Canada faces a three-phase security screen. In the first phase, refugees are selected from a large pool by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Of those, the UNHCR chooses only one to two per cent to go into a resettlement pool, Showler said.

The UNHCR  looks for those who are deemed less risky — women, children and those who may have sustained injuries from the conflict. But most importantly, anyone who could raise security markers, is associated with any jihadi groups or involved directly in the conflict, would be rejected, he said.

Refugees are then referred to a visa officer for an interview to determine if there are inconsistencies in their stories. From there, Canadian immigration officials work with the Canada Border Services Agency, the RCMP and CSIS to carry out security checks.

"I don't want to pretend that for this 25,000 that they would be going through the same program. I think they're going to have to do something different if they are going to be doing it speedily," he said.

UN records on refugees

But Showler pointed out that UNHCR already has good records on thousands of Syrian refugees, opposed to the Bashar al-Assad dictatorship, who fled four years ago when the conflict started before ISIS joined the fray, who are secular, professional urban middle-class and democratic. 

Part of the way to mitigate a great number of potential risks around the missing of key information from background checks is to invest in people on the ground, Boisvert said. 

"Have to do it posthaste. Secondly, will have to ensure CBSA and CSIS and the RCMP are using advance analytics, using technology to come up with a risk score around every individual."

The government has not yet provided details on how it will implement its refugee plan. But Showler said it should provide a system that can be fast and has reasonable security measures in place, "where Canadians can be assured that the refugees coming in here are ones that are in need and will not pose a risk."

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