Canadians’ hearts may have gone out to little Alan Kurdi, the drowned Syrian toddler found washed up on a Turkish beach. But we aren’t blind to the security implications of bringing 25,000 Syrian refugees into the country on very short notice.
Recent polls have found that the public is deeply split on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s ambitious plan to grant asylum to so many in the coming weeks. Roughly 50 per cent of those surveyed disapprove, most of them citing the tight year-end deadline. Yet fully 40 per cent approve, despite the complexities of selecting, transporting, housing and supporting so many newcomers.
That said, there’s broad agreement — just under 60 per cent in one poll — that there’s a security risk to be managed.
Trudeau is well aware of the concern. Vetting the refugees to ensure public safety is “an extremely high priority,” he said this week. “It didn’t take the tragedies of Paris for us to suddenly realize that security’s important.” Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, too, acknowledges that “we have to be vigilant.”
The need for such reassurances is understandable, given the irrational drumbeat of fear in the United States, where empathy for the 10,000 refugees due there has been melting away. Going into an election year, politicians are putting craven self-interest before human decency. The House of Representatives has just voted to slap new barriers on the refugees, and governors are balking at taking them in.
Yet in France, traumatized as it was by Islamic State attacks, President François Hollande has boldly doubled down on decency. He has reaffirmed his government’s intention to grant 30,000 people asylum. Security needn’t trump humanity, he declared, rebuking the country’s ferocious anti-immigrant lobby.
The same generous spirit should continue to galvanize the Trudeau government as it prepares to unveil a $1.2-billion plan on Tuesday to airlift 5,000 or more people a week, and temporarily house them at military bases and other facilities.
Canadian security officials have the staff and tools they need to make sure that the refugees pose no great risk. The more challenging task by far is helping them into a better life.
The head of Canada’s spy agency, Michel Coulombe, says screening measures are “robust and … appropriate.” RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson says “the system is satisfactory.” Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale promises there will be no “diminution or reduction” in security.
Indeed almost all the refugees destined for Canada have already been vetted by the United Nations in Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon, where many have lived for years.
As the Toronto Star’s Marina Jimenez reports, they will have been put through a triple screening process before coming here.
First the UN identifies them and enters their information into a database, using biometric markers and other means. The UN also carefully vets them for links to the military, combatant groups, war crimes or other criminality.
Then the UN selects a tiny number, roughly 1 per cent, for resettlement to Canada and other countries of asylum. Priority goes to women and children, those with relatives in the host country, and vulnerable people. Young single men who may have been combatants, or who have no ID, don’t make the cut.
Finally, Canadian officials based in the Middle East interview candidates and run their names through our police, spy service and border security databases for red-flagging.
No system is perfect. But Canada’s screening system is as robust as any other. The main imperative, as the UN triage system recognizes, is to fully screen potentially higher-risk individuals overseas for criminality and extremism, before allowing them to come here. Screening for low-risk refugees can be completed here if need be.
As the Star has written repeatedly, the new government has a duty of honour to stick to its pledge to resettle 25,000 people. It appears to be on track. But the public is skeptical that Ottawa can get the job done right in just a few weeks and the polls make it clear that there’s need to rush to meet an arbitrary deadline.
Putting the compassion back into Canadian refugee policy means sparing people needless stress and uncertainty. The focus should be on an orderly, staged resettlement not a chaotic rushed one.