Thousands of refugee claimants are living in Canada without having been fully cleared by national security, according to a report that shows a massive backlog in screenings amid a border crisis that began in 2016.
The internal government report showed the number of asylum seekers awaiting clearance had exploded sevenfold between 2016 and 2018.
As of last February, Canada Border Services Agency had 11,745 asylum seekers in the queue for security assessment, up from just 1,683 two years earlier. Refugee claimants accounted for 41 per cent of the overall security backlog, which also included screenings required for those applying for permanent residence, international students, foreign workers and visitors.
Lawyer Richard Kurland, who obtained the border agency report under an access to information request, said all so-called irregular migrants who crossed the border for asylum from the U.S. would have undergone an initial identity check with the CIA and FBI based on biometrics information, such as fingerprints and travel documents, before being released for further screening by border agents, which may include personal records from a refugee claimant’s home country.
“Canada does not blindly let terrorists, security threats and organized criminals into the country. The (initial screening) system is picking up the highest-level risks,” Kurland told the Star. “But what level of risks are we taking in? What level of risks are we prepared to accept that are below national security threats and terrorism? Other risks are not unimportant.”
Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said all enforcement and intelligence agencies including the RCMP and CSIS all work closely and constantly assess their operations to ensure national security.
“For those who are already in Canada, they were already screened before they were allowed to enter. The (border agency’s) National Security Screening Division does additional background checks on cases referred by an officer, flagged in a lookout and for all adult in-Canada asylum seekers,” Goodale’s office said in a statement. “Canadians can be confident in the security screening procedures.”
Tens of thousands of irregular migrants have crossed the border from the United States for asylum in Canada since late-2016 when U.S. President Donald Trump was elected with an anti-immigration mandate. Currently, Canada has more than 73,000 asylum claims awaiting a hearing, the majority of which are from these border-crossers.
During the 2017-18 calendar year, of all screenings conducted for foreign nationals, the border agency cleared 90.3 per cent, or 80,268 individuals, and weeded out 0.9 per cent or 648 people who were deemed a threat. The rest of the cases were found to be inconclusive, put on hold for missing information or dropped when a screening was deemed to be no longer necessary, said the report.
Individuals are denied security clearance if they have been involved in terrorist organizations, organized crime and crimes against humanity.
Among asylum seekers who were subjected to screening, 87.9 per cent or 24,242 individuals received security clearances and only 0.2 per cent or 58 people were considered a threat.
Lawyer Lorne Waldman cautioned the public should not jump to the conclusion that the screening system is faulty and foreign criminals are roaming around the country.
“There is nothing in the report that suggested to me that people are coming into the country without being screened who are posing threats. There was a tiny percentage of the people found to be a security threat,” said Waldman.
“The fact that we have such a backlog is a real matter of concern because it is delaying the refugee (determination) process.”
Queen’s University professor Sharry Aiken said a screening backlog is not a new phenomenon as it ebbs and flows with migration trends.
“Generally, the threat within the immigrant population is lower than the native-born population and previous studies have confirmed that,” said Aiken, who teaches immigration and refugee law. “Associating migrants with threats is a product of political manipulation that is not borne out of empirical evidence.”
Calgary Nose Hill MP Michelle Rempel, the Conservative Party’s immigration critic, said there have been incidents of security screening failures in the past but the problem has to do with the inadequate resources in place and not the process itself.
“We do know we don’t have enough resources given the demand on the system,” said Rempel, who has asked for a joint study to examine Canada’s security screening process and address apparent gaps in the immigration system.
According to the border agency report, Nigerians made up the largest number of asylum seekers in the security backlog, followed by those from India, Pakistan, Iran and China.
Nicholas Keung is a Toronto-based reporter covering immigration. Follow him on Twitter: @nkeung