POLITICS
02/04/2019 17:03 EST | Updated 02/05/2019 11:42 EST

Tories 'Ramping Up Fear’ About Refugees As Election Looms: Experts

We did some fact checking on claims made about immigration screening and national security.

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer speaks during a caucus meeting in Ottawa on Jan. 27, 2019.
David Kawai/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer speaks during a caucus meeting in Ottawa on Jan. 27, 2019.

It's almost a year out from the next federal election and already politicians are drawing attention to issues of immigration and national security, making claims that their party will do the best job at keeping Canadians safe.

Following the RCMP's Jan. 24 terrorism-related arrest and subsequent release of a man who originally came to Kingston, Ont. as a Syrian refugee, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer sounded the alarm about Canada's screening process.

"Canada's refugee screening process needs to be seriously examined. We've recently learned of several examples of dangerous individuals entering the country due in part to lax screening procedures," Scheer said in a statement.

Leading up to the Burnaby, B.C. federal byelection, Conservative MP Michelle Rempel also called for a review. She connected "poor security screening" to Syrian refugee Ibrahim Ali recently being charged with the 2017 murder of Burnaby teen Marissa Shen.

Adrian Wyld/CANADIAN PRESS
Shadow Minister for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Michelle Rempel responds to a question during a news conference in Ottawa on Nov. 1, 2018.

"Cases like these highlight the gaps in our immigration screening system — gaps which are made even more problematic with the ongoing influx of people crossing illegally into Canada from the United States," Rempel said at a news conference Jan. 16. She is the immigration, refugees and citizenship critic, and on several occasions has requested Parliament examine Canada's security screening process.

Rempel's concerns were described as blowing a "dog-whistle" by Gerald Butts, principal secretary to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, on Twitter.

Liberal Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Ralph Goodale has dismissed the Conservatives' concerns, stating that any gaps in the system have been addressed, and Canadians don't need to be afraid.

"Canadians can be confident in the security screening procedures devised and applied by the department of Immigration and Refugees," Goodale's spokesman Scott Bardsley said in a statement.

University of British Columbia's Chris Erickson specializes in world politics and describes the Conservative's recent immigration screening comments as "ramping up fear" and an election tactic.

"The reason for ramping up fear is it sets people on edge and when people are scared they look to people to protect them," Erickson said. "We owe it to ourselves to step back and say, 'What do we know and what don't we know about this situation?'"

Watch: Scheer says Trudeau damaged 'integrity' of immigration system

So, how exactly flawed is Canada's screening system and what should be done to fix it? HuffPost Canada has set out to answer these and other questions as the pre-election campaign begins and political mudslinging heats up.

When has Canada's screening process recently failed?

A person considered to be a national security concern was mistakenly granted permanent residency in 2017, because of "several errors combining to result in an oversight for a single application," said Bardsley.

In a separate 2017 audit of the Canadian Border Service Agency, it found 39 Syrian refugees who should've undergone comprehensive security checks did not before arriving in Canada. Another 150 cases had not undergone a social media check. In all of these cases, however, security screening was completed after they arrived, and no concerns were found, said Bardsley.

Last December, CBC News reported a man granted asylum after crossing the Canada-U.S. border had an extensive criminal record and ties to a violent gang. He is currently detained, and will be deported to Somalia this year.

GEOFF ROBINS/Getty Images
Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale addresses the media during a press conference at the the Meeting of G7 Foreign and Security Ministers in Toronto on April 23, 2018.

In these incidents the "mistakes were completely unacceptable," Bardsley said. "Changes have been made to prevent these mistakes from happening again."

In the Kingston case, linking the man who was arrested and not charged with a problem with immigration screening is "leaping to conclusions," Goodale said at a news conference last week. "Let's get the facts on the table and then we'll determine the appropriate course of action."

As for Ali, police told media there's no indication he had a criminal record before arriving in Canada.

"The vast, vast, vast majority of people never go down this kind of road," said Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees.

How many Syrian refugees have come to Canada?

Canadian Press
A television interview with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau plays on a screen as family and friends wait to welcome Syrian refugees Mohammad Kurdi and his family at Vancouver International Airport on Dec. 28, 2015.

Between Nov. 4, 2015 and Feb. 29, 2016, Canada resettled 26,172 Syrian refugees, reported the Canadian Border Service Agency (CBSA). That means less than 0.2 per cent of those refugees didn't undergo comprehensive screening checks before coming to Canada, although they were cleared after arriving, according to the 2017 audit.

In total, Canada has welcomed 40,081 Syrian refugees, reports the government's website.

How does Canada screen Syrian refugees?

Syrians who go to refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon or Turkey undergo a registration process and their information is entered into a database, said senior resettlement officer Michael Casasola, with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

"From the outset we are thinking about assistance and we start gathering information on them, their family composition, needs and vulnerabilities," Casasola said.

The UN works with other NGOs to identify which refugees are eligible for highly sought-after resettlement spots, and trained officers do in-depth screening interviews, corroborating information with family members, and checking how they've described events in past interviews and any documents they're able to provide, Casasola said. They undergo a criminal and security check, and medical examination.

Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
Syrian refugees wait to be examined by Doctors WorldWide Turkey at a refugee camp in the Torbali district of Izmir, Turkey on Dec. 21, 2016.

If the person is deemed credible and in need of resettlement, the UN hands over "quite a thick file" about them to a resettlement country like Canada, Casasola said.

Canadian officials do their own screen of the selected refugees, including gathering biographical and biometric information, such as facial recognition, that's checked against immigration, law enforcement and national and international security databases, said CBSA spokesperson Nicholas Dorion.

Only if refugees pass the "robust layers of protection" and don't raise any criminal or security flags are they allowed to resettle in Canada, said Bardsley.

Of all the world's refugees that need resettlement, only 5 per cent get resettlement, Casasola said. "The issue is not how we are going to find them? It's that we have more of a need than countries are willing to take on."

How many people have crossed Canada's border, claiming asylum?

Getty Editorial
A long line of asylum seekers wait to illegally cross the Canada/U.S. border near Champlain, N.Y. on Aug. 6, 2017.

In 2018, 20,660 people entered Canada at land ports of entry claiming asylum, according to the Canadian government. Another 8,755 people have claimed asylum at Canada's airports, marine ports and CBSA's inland offices.

How are asylum seekers screened at Canada's ports of entry?

When RCMP or police intercept a person crossing the border, they're brought to a CBSA or immigration office, where they undergo health and security screenings to determine if they pose a threat, or are eligible to make a refugee claim, according to the government's website.

If they're eligible to make a claim, they're released until their hearing. If they're not eligible, they're released but required to report for a future removal decision.

Graham Hughes/THE CANADIAN PRESS
A man removes his belongings from a CBSA truck at a processing centre for asylum seekers at the Canada-United States border in Lacolle, Que. Aug. 10, 2017.

"There are going to be errors at the border. Some people who present no problems will be detained unnecessarily. Some people who present problems will be admitted," said Daniel Hiebert, a University of British Columbia professor who studies international migration and national security, and held national immigration advisory positions.

"Many people will criticize this process. Those motivated by human rights concerns will justifiably point out 'false positives' while the law-and-order crowd will have examples of 'false negatives' to complain about."

Is Canada doing enough when it comes to screening?

Rempel has tabled a motion calling for Parliament to review security screening for "persons entering Canada," to determine if gaps have emerged over the past three years and to propose solutions. In response, Goodale has pointed to Bill C-59 currently before the Senate.

If passed, the bill will establish a national security and intelligence review agency to oversee the CBSA.

"As soon as that legislation becomes law, then we will have the oversight mechanism that people are calling for," Goodale told CBC's Power and Politics in January.

Rempel did not respond to a request for comment on this agency.

Earlier on HuffPost Canada:


Despite concerns raised by Conservatives, academics and immigration experts are confident Canadian officials are using virtually every tool available to them to screen newcomers to Canada, and protect national security.

"Canada is as careful as it can be and (officials) have certain tools at their disposal we don't even know about," said Hiebert.

"These processes are pretty darn effective — we will never know how many people are turned away."

Dench described the screening process as "rigorous" and "intense," far more so than what visitors undergo.

"It often seems strange the focus is on refugees when if someone wants to enter Canada with violent goals in mind, they'd be more likely to come through as a visitor," Dench said.

"Refugees are seeking safety in another country and are looking for somewhere without violence. More than the average Canadian, they value safety."

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