A realistic assessment of the security threat from ‘irregular migrants’

This piece appeared in The Hill Times on February 18, 2019.

One duty that a government or state has to treat seriously is the protection of its citizenry. Police forces, militaries, security intelligence services and other bodies are created, resourced and run by various levels of government (federal, provincial, municipal in Canada) with the goal of preventing acts of violence or other crimes that make life less enjoyable. The system is not perfect but try to imagine a country where these organisations did not exist. Not a pretty picture, is it?

A good example of this security role is at Canada’s borders. We have a lot of border to try to secure, whether we are talking air, sea or land. Carrying out checks is relatively simple, albeit still challenging, at official border points (e.g. land crossings or airports) but ‘unofficial’ points are problematic. Over the last few years the news has been full of stories of thousands of people entering Canada at such places, so much that it has received its own name: irregular migration. One of the best known such points is in Quebec and to date tens of thousands of immigrants fleeing what they see as untenable situations in the US have attempted to enter our country (I will not go into the whole “Safe Third Country Agreement” between Canada and the US).

This influx has led to a huge backlog of cases that have yet to be adjudicated : most cases will probably lead to repatriation to the US as no solid case of persecution in that country will have been proven. The main concern, however, is that there are legitimate security threats hiding in that population.

Concerns of this nature are not trivial. It is always possible that someone, or several someones, with violent intent will try to enter Canada. It is not for nothing that terrorist groups like Islamic State (IS) and Al Qaeda (AQ) regularly put out propaganda warning that their members will come here to wreak havoc. The fact that there have been so few actual cases is heartening but past performance is no guarantee of future events.

What then is to be done? The answer at one level is clear: more resources. CSIS is a major player in this regard and its security screening branch is one of the Service’s largest operational arms. CSIS employees sift through the information and intelligence they possess to advise the government on threats to national security and weigh in on refugee, citizenship and some visitor cases. Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) could probably also do with more officers.

On another level, however, no security screening is perfect. CSIS and its partners are not omniscient. They do have impressive data bases but these are never complete. Sometimes there is simply nothing of relevance to contribute to a file. A lack of information makes an informed decision hard to arrive at. Maybe denial of entry could be a default position when good data is lacking although that would entail thousands of people who can make positive contributions to our land never making it to our shores.

One thing we must not do is to erect the spectre of the immigrant terrorist, as some have done. While it is impossible to issue an iron-clad guarantee that no bad actor will ever come to Canada, it is nevertheless true that these cases are rare. When they do come up CSIS advice should be taken into account (this is not always the case as I shall write about next week).

We are a land of immigrants and proudly so. We can do the best job possible to ensure that those who intend us harm are prevented from coming here. Even if a few trickle through this is not the time to throw out the baby with the bath water. Our future economic success relies on robust immigration. It would be good to remember that.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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