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Sheryl Saperia

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Are Iranian Spies Slipping Through our Immigration Loopholes?

Posted: 04/ 5/2012 5:41 pm

Auditor General Michael Ferguson's report has generated a great deal of attention on the government's procurement process for the F-35 fighter planes. Lesser known are his findings that Transport Canada has failed to inspect hundreds of airlines and aviation companies, while the Canada Border Services Agency has had difficulties meeting Health Canada standards for identifying potentially hazardous items before allowing them into the country.

Just what is being allowed into Canada that shouldn't be? And as importantly, who is being allowed into the country?

Last week I testified before the House of Commons Subcommittee on International Human Rights, which is studying the threat of Iran. I focused my remarks on the threat of Iranian terrorism, for which the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) is largely responsible. The IRGC has provided assistance to the Taliban and al-Qaeda in killing Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan. It is suspected of involvement in recent attempted attacks in Thailand, Georgia, and Azerbaijan. And it has provided training and financing to Hamas and Hezbollah, both of which are listed terrorist entities in Canada.

One question that arose in committee is whether there is an IRGC presence in Canada. There is good to reason to believe the answer is yes.

Iran has a history of using its embassies abroad as staging grounds for terrorist attacks. The Qods Force, the IRGC's overseas operation wing, reportedly uses the diplomatic cover provided by Iranian embassies, and sometimes arranges for its agents to be hired as non-diplomatic staff.

Former IRGC member Reza Kahlili, who is now living in the United States, maintains that Canada is a major target of Iranian espionage. Kahlili asserts that Iranian intelligence agents regularly spy on Iranians in Canada and report on those who oppose the Islamic Republic. These individuals may be arrested when they return to Iran, and their families still living in Iran may be punished.

The IRGC likely has a corporate presence in Canada as well. The oil industry makes Canada an attractive place to learn the tools of the trade and procure technology; the substantial expatriate community offers good cover; and the proximity to the U.S. allows front companies to purchase technology from the U.S. and transfer them across the border.

Compounding the problem are some disconcerting weaknesses in our immigration system. For instance, foreign students and workers entering the country are not subject to compulsory security checks. This should change, particularly when individuals apply from "high-risk" countries -- meaning countries with large populations that may be hostile to Canada and the West. And once a visa is granted to a foreign student, he or she should be required to re-apply for the visa each year in order to stay in the country. Right now, foreign students only have to apply once, and this visa is valid for the length of their university degree. Yet universities are not obliged to report students who never show up for their program or who are later expelled. Employers similarly face no obligation to report foreign workers who leave or do not show up at their place of business.

Our security screening capabilities may simply be inadequate for the vast number of immigrants we accept every year. Some therefore argue that Canada should reduce its immigration rates, or place a moratorium on immigration from high-risk countries. These recommendations may be too bitter to swallow, as Canadians generally pride themselves on high immigration rates and their welcoming embrace of newcomers.

Some will also argue that the government has no business rejecting applicants on the basis of their national origin. Many individuals from these high-risk countries no doubt seek lives of peace in a country that respects human rights, the rule of law, and democratic processes.

But it is not unreasonable for Canadians to demand more stringent security checks to ensure that people seeking to enter the country do not have nefarious intentions.

The Economist reported recently that Iran might be constructing its nuclear facilities with ultra-high performance concrete. The article also mentioned that a graduate of Tehran University is currently studying the molecular structure of cement at the University of Ottawa. I have no reason to believe the student is focused on anything but the civilian application of this material. But I expect that Canada's security and immigration agencies have done their own research on cases like this. Security checks must be instituted for foreign students and workers who wish to come to Canada. Special attention must be given to those coming from high-risk countries.

The Auditor General has alerted us to under-performance by Transport Canada and the CBSA. These bodies, as well as all immigration- and security-related agencies in the country, should institute tighter measures to ensure that what and who comes into Canada will not compromise our safety.