Syrian refugees will face three levels of intense screening
Canada’s refugees will not come from the hundreds of thousands of displaced people streaming into Europe. They will most likely come from Jordan, Turkey or Lebanon, where almost all have been registered by the UNHCR.
By: Marina Jimenez Foreign Affairs Writer, Published on Wed Nov 18 2015
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s insistence on bringing in 25,000 Syrian refugees by Jan. 1 has ignited fears the country’s security could be compromised, and prompted several provincial and municipal leaders to call for the plan to be revised.
Concerns were heightened following the ferocious attack in Paris by Islamic State terrorists on Nov. 12 that killed at least 129 people. One of the attackers used a Syrian passport to enter Europe through Greece last month, part of the mass flow of migrants fleeing war and misery.
However, Canada’s refugees will not come from the hundreds of thousands of displaced people streaming into Europe, a chaotic mass who paid smugglers to travel illegally.
They will most likely come from Jordan, Turkey or Lebanon, where almost all have been registered by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
Jihadis interested in violence are not going to sit in a refugee camp for months — sometimes years — waiting for an interview with a visa officer, say experts.
“The idea that ISIS would use the refugee system to infiltrate Canada is vastly overblown. There is no history of this,” said Wesley Wark, a security expert and professor at the University of Ottawa. “You could never be certain your jihadi would even arrive.”
Trudeau, who is expected to unveil details of the refugee resettlement initiative later this week, defended his approach Tuesday, saying the safety of Canadians will not be compromised and that a team of ministers is currently working on a plan to settle the refugees responsibly and securely.
The 4.2 million Syrian refugees displaced by war are mostly in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, and some have been there since civil war erupted in 2011.
Normally, government-sponsored refugees go through three levels of intense screening for criminality, war crimes and medical needs. UNHCR officials conduct detailed interviews and identity checks in the country of first asylum. Even if Syrians don’t have passports, most carry national identity cards with bar codes.
“We question them about past or current military activities or affiliations, including their future plans. We have a number of biometric security and anti-fraud measures including iris scanning,” said a UNHCR spokesperson. The registration data is entered into an interconnected global system.
The UNHCR then triages the refugees, and selects a very small number (about 1 per cent) who would make good candidates for resettlement by countries such as Canada. Women with children, unaccompanied minors, the elderly, sick and vulnerable are given priority. Young, single men who may have been combatants, or cannot account for missing identity documents, do not make the cut, said Peter Showler, the former head of Canada’s Immigration and Refugee Board, who has worked as a consultant for the UNHCR.
Finally, Canadian visa officers based in the Middle East interview the refugees again to ensure their stories have no discrepancies. Their names are run through various databases, including the CBSA, CSIS and RCMP.
To make the job of screening easier in a compressed time line, the government could target refugees who are least likely to be security risks, including mothers and children, as well as relatives of Canada’s 40,000-strong Syrian community.
“Most of the refugees who come to Canada are families or mothers with children who have been living in camp-like situations for many months. We know what they have been up to,” said Ratna Omidvar,
The UNHCR defended the integrity of the refugee system Tuesday, noting that asylum and terrorism are “not compatible.” “Refugees should not be turned into scapegoats and must not become the secondary victims of these tragic events,” said a spokesperson at a briefing in Geneva.
Government-sponsored refugees normally go through three levels of screening:
Registering with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees:
- Tell their story of how they escaped and why
- Confirm their identity through documents, biometric security screening, including iris scanning
- Be registered in an automated and interconnected system
- Red flag any cases of war crimes or criminality
UNHCR re-settlement list
- Triage refugees and select 1 per cent who could be resettled
- Interview candidates again
- Give priority to the vulnerable, including those with medical problems, single mothers and children
- Single young men unlikely to make the cut
Interview with Canadian visa officers
- One-on-one interviews with visa officers in the Middle East
- Confirm story again
- Run names through data bases of Canadian Border Services Agency, Canadian Security Intelligence Service and RCMP