Is there a terrorism risk for Canada in accepting 25,000 refugees?

By Christine Duhaime | November 17th, 2015

Terrorist risks for refugees

There appears to be a debate that has the potential to escalate in this country in respect of whether there are risks for Canada in taking in 25,000 Syrian refugees.

No decision is ever risk-free. The decision to accept Syrian refugee is no different – it is not risk free. But it does not mean we should not do our part as humanitarians, and curb our intake of 25,000 refugees.

First some facts. At this time, as a result of ISIS, there are genuine national security risks with the Syrian refugee population generally. I think one of the most dangerous things we can do is to pretend there are no risks. Of course there are.

That’s because, inter alia, ISIS has said that they will send their people in among the refugee population to infiltrate the West in order to attack us and our way of life. And moreover, there are many members of ISIS who pretend to be legitimate Syrian refugees living in places like Turkey and in refugee camps. The New York Times has a story here about two members of ISIS’ feared police force who slipped into Turkey with legitimate refugees and now reside with the Syrian refugee population, hiding their identity as members, or former members, of a listed terrorist organization.

ISIS issues fake but real passports

ISIS has control over the issuance of fake, but real, Syrian passports and, for quite a while, has been issuing fake, but real, Syrian passports for a host of purposes, including for terrorist financing.

The most famous case is the leader of ISIS’ wife, Saja al Dulaimi, who was given a Syrian passport (she is a well known and wealthy Iraqi, not Syrian) and together with her children, travelled from Syria to Lebanon where she claimed to be a Syrian refugee. She traveled back and forth undetected on a mission as a terrorist financier, who carried money from the refugee settlements back to ISIS until she was arrested.

Another prominent example – the 3 teenage girls from the UK who defected to join ISIS in March 2015, were given fake (but real) passports in Turkey under their real names and photos.  You can hear the conversation in video footage secretly filmed here (at 1:05 – 1:20).

Refugees flee without documents

Refugees often flee their homes without passports, if they ever had any, and often (more often than not), buy fake ones along the escape route to facilitate their entry into the EU, or if they are in Jordan, Lebanon or Turkey, to be able to re-start their lives. That’s simply because without any ID, no person, including a refugee, can obtain any sort of assistance or move on with their lives. Refugees have to survive and at the moment when they decide to buy fake ID, I doubt they are appreciating the fact that the conduct is criminal, or may render them inadmissible to a place like Canada. They simply want to settle down and feed their families. You can read more here about the fake passport trade, and why ISIS uses fake passports, and the financial crime issues associated with that trade.

Syrian documents are now considered suspect

Whether a Syrian refugee has a passport or not, at this stage, considering that the intelligence community has put an alert on all documents in respect of Syria as being at risk for fraud, the CBSA will still have to confirm the validity of  identities of refugee claimants. The reality is that it will be difficult to ascertain the identity of 25,000 refugee claimants from a country with no effective government which does not have any agency with whom Canadian officials can confirm 25,000 identities online, or offline. Syria is a bombed-out state with little in the way of infrastructure remaining. As a result, it will be time-consuming and a monumental task to ascertain and confirm the identity of persons claiming to be Syrian refugees with cultural and linguistic barriers at play.

Incredible intelligence resources are needed to vet refugees for threats

Compounded to the issue of the potential for fraudulent use of documentation, is the issue that, among the Syrian population, there may indeed be one or more members of ISIS who are former disenchanted members, or active members coming to Canada with the intention of causing harm to Canada. It’s very hard to know and it would require an incredible amount of intelligence personnel to interview each refugee claimant in order to assess whether each is a security threat to Canada. We do not have the resources in Canada to do that. Not for 500 or for 25,000.

So, given the above, is there a terrorism risk of accepting 25,000 Syrian refugees in Canada? Clearly, there is a theoretical risk but with all risks, it does not mean that the risks cannot be mitigated. How then, do we mitigate risks from a national security perspective to provide comfort to Canadians to open the borders and let 25,000 refugees in?

We Can Mitigate National Security Concerns With Refugees

In Canada, we can make better choices about which refugees we accept to come to Canada by selecting refugees who are less of a risk.

There are 34,000 children per year who claim refugee status who have no parents. They live in refugee camps, or worse, on the streets in Istanbul or in internally displaced settlements. They need food, shelter and desperately need an education. Many countries like Canada do not readily accept unaccompanied minors who are refugees. But we should. Children need protection the most. Children are much less likely to be hardened ISIS terrorists.

The same is true for women who are mothers. They rarely have time to both care for children and plan acts of terrorism.

Syrian refugees who are well-educated and were self-employed or gainfully employed is another low-risk category for terrorism activities. Moreover, their identities are more easily confirmable with universities and such.

Refugees have values that don’t align with terrorism

I do not think we should sit by and do nothing while the refugee crisis spirals out of control and 60 million displaced refugees become 80 million.

Genuine Syrian refugees left ISIS – they could have stayed and become terrorists but elected to leave because they have values that don’t align with terrorism. Are we really not going to do our part in the world and take them in, despite the risks? Even if we mitigate the risks, as described above, we can’t eliminate all risks and if we wait for that to happen, we won’t be accepting any refugees at all. We have to be willing to assume some risk or slow down the process until it grinds to a halt while we search for the perfect, documented refugee in the midst of  imperfect chaos.

Banking refugees

One issue we need to consider, but haven’t yet in the banking community, is how to on-board refugee clients at financial institutions in the West, including Canada, with Syrian documents that we know are likely fake. Not only can their identity not be ascertained, it can’t be confirmed and banks will have no idea who they are banking, or whether there are risks associated with that banking relationship.

I think we need to come together with solutions that address CTF and financial inclusion in banking in the context of the refugee crisis.

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