Everyone knows that Canada's refugee system is an easy conduit for terrorists. For years, we've been reading articles that describe the refugee system as "the weakest security link," as one Canadian newspaper headline put it. This view is equally prevalent south of the border. According to Robert Leiken, a migration and security expert at the Center for the National Interest in Washington, "virtually everyone who has looked at the Canadian [refugee] system thinks it is the most relaxed, considerably more so than Europe."
But is this view really true? I had occasion to examine terrorist refugee claims in Canada while writing a book about refugee issues, and was surprised by how little evidence there is to support the conventional view. If anything, the opposite is closer to the truth. Terrorists who file refugee claims in Canada have an overwhelming capture rate, to the point that Canada's refugee system may be North America's least-appreciated anti-terrorism deterrent.
I examined refugee claims filed in Canada between 1985 and 2005 by individuals affiliated with political extremism - either as perpetrators, fundraisers or enablers - at the time of their claim. I did not count cases of individuals who filed refugee claims years before becoming extremists. While such cases should not be dismissed, they represent a separate problem from those who try to use Canada's asylum system as a covert means of entering North America.
By this method, 26 political extremists tried to enter Canada by pretending to be refugees between the mid-1980s and the middle of the century's first decade. Clearly, the phenomenon of political extremists posing as victims of persecution is a real one. However, the crucial question is, what happens next? How successful are terrorist refugee claimants compared to other types of terrorists? Consider the case of Essam Marzouk, who may be the closest thing to a successful terrorist refugee, or one who later executed a terror plan. Mr. Marzouk was a member of al-Jihad, an Egyptian organization that later merged with al-Qaeda, when he filed a refugee claim in Vancouver in 1993.
Mr. Marzouk, whose claim was eventually accepted, was later alleged to have trained the terrorists who bombed two U.S. embassies in East Africa in 1998. If he was involved, that would make him the only terrorist to have been involved in a successful operation after filing a Canadian refugee claim.
Yet if he did train the bombers, he had to have left North America to do so. Because while he was in Canada, he was either in jail or under surveillance by the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service, frustrating whatever terrorist designs he had while here. In other words, Mr. Marzouk did not use the refugee system to execute a terrorist operation.
In this way, he is typical of terrorists who file refugee claims in Canada. Twenty-four of the 26 cases were people taken into custody, while two fled the country after coming under indictment or being subject to "confrontational interviews" by CSIS. In none of the 26 instances was someone plotting a terrorist attack able to use a refugee claim as a means of avoiding detection.
Indeed, by far the most common outcome for terrorists who enter Canada's refugee system is to become the subject of a security certificate. Security certificates are by far Canada's most powerful national security tool. They are also controversial, due to the extraordinary measures they allow the state to employ, including the use of evidence that is withheld from the accused. But what's not in doubt is the effectiveness of the certificates as counterterrorism tools. As of 2009, 15 of the 26 terrorist asylum claimants had been dealt with through the use of certificates. In each case, whatever threat they represented was instantly neutralized.
The overwhelming capture rate of terrorists who make refugee claims is in noticeable contrast to terrorist operations that do not involve asylum fraud. The 9/11 hijackers, for example, used tourist and student visas. The largest terrorist attack in Canadian history was the 1985 Air India bombing, in which the alleged or convicted perpetrators were long-time Canadian citizens.
The evidence suggests that, in fact, terrorists who attempt to enter North America through Canada's refugee system are making a huge mistake, one that dramatically increases their chance of being caught. Refugee claimants have much higher disclosure standards than tourist and student travellers (who do not have to provide fingerprints and life histories) and far fewer legal protections than Canadian citizens (who cannot be subject to security certificates). For a terror chief's purposes, phony refugee claimants involve the worst of both worlds.
If the alternative were terrorists not coming to North America at all, we should obviously hope no extremist ever makes another refugee claim. But the more likely alternative is that terrorists will continue to arrive. Given this reality, we may actually prefer that they come in through Canada's refugee system. Because it has long been the roach motel of terror plans: Every terrorist who enters it has been stopped dead in his tracks.
Andy Lamey is the author of Frontier Justice: The Global Refugee Crisis and What to Do About It.