Refugees and terrorism

The photo has already become iconic.  The picture of the little Kurdish boy lying face down in the water has touched the lives of tens of millions around the world.  It ranks up there with the girl running naked after a napalm strike in Vietnam and the vulture stalking a starving Ethiopian boy.  This photo has galvanised people to demand action to deal with the horrendous refugee crisis in Europe.

The Conservative government of Stephen Harper has been taking a beating on Canada’s response to the crisis.  Immigration Minister Chris Alexander even suspended his re-election campaign to deal with the issue back in Ottawa.  The Harper government’s response does seem inadequate compared with what the Liberals and NDP are promising to do (the two parties have offered to take in immediately 25,000 and 10,000 refugees respectively).  All sides pale in comparison to what the Swedes (100,000) and Germans (800,000) are doing.

So, what should Canada’s response be?  It seems clear that we should agree to take more refugees fleeing persecution in Syria and elsewhere.  After all, Canada did accept over 50,000 Vietnamese “boat people” in the late 1970s.  Surely, we can do as much now for the Syrians?  But aren’t we carrying out air strikes against the Islamic State?  There is debate over the precise role and effectiveness of Canada’s contribution to the military campaign against IS, but there has to be more than our response to the ensuing refugee stream than the Prime Minister’s one-sided support for air strikes.

While it is both right and “Canadian” to step up to the plate now, there is an aspect that few are talking about but which is important.  If we move to raise the number of refugees, we need to ensure that those coming do not do us harm.

There are those that would scoff at the suggestion that families fleeing the Assad regime or the Islamic State could possibly harbour terrorists.  This, they might say, is just another round of fearmongering by the Harper government.  And yet the threat is there in a way it wasn’t before.

Let me explain.  Traditionally, terrorists who somehow fooled the refugee screening process came to Canada individually (i.e. without families).  Examples would include Ahmed Ressam, Adil Charkaoui and Mohammed Harkat (NB the latter two were subject to National Security Certificates in Canada but never found guilty in a court on terrorism charges).  Today, however, especially with the Islamic State, whole families are leaving the West to live in territory controlled by IS.  The group has been enormously successful in attracting women and children to join it in its crusade to re-establish the Caliphate.  Scarcely a week goes by without some story in the news of a European woman packing up her kids and traveling to Syria.

There is a very real possibility then that families seeking refugee status in Canada could in fact be sent by IS to infiltrate the West. I am not suggesting that this would be a huge phenomenon.  But we have to consider it.

Taking in thousands of refugees would put tremendous pressure on CSIS which is mandated to provide security screening for all refugee and immigrant applicants.  The problem would be complicated by the fact that many, if not most, applicants would come with little, if any, documentation, thus rendering CSIS’ job more difficult.  Not to mention the extreme difficulty of obtaining information or intelligence on these people in the formidable security environment in Syria.

So by all means let us here in Canada do our humanitarian duty and save more people from a life of terror.  But let’s not underestimate the need to do it right.

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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