The screening of visitors and permanent residents who apply for visas to Canada must be conducted in a more systemic and vigilant manner. Nothing less than the safety and protection of the public is at stake.
Canadian visa officers overseas are supposed to deny entry to people who are terrorists, have committed war crimes, have criminal records, are involved in organized crime, or have health conditions which will place excessive demands on the system. And yet there are worrying gaps in the information available to them, and in their ability to make an informed decision.
A new report by the Auditor General found “disturbing weaknesses” in the way Canada Border Services Agency and Citizenship and Immigration Canada screen applicants. Changes to what constitutes a threat to Canada’s public heath and safety have not been implemented, since the last audit in 2000.
Despite the fact that 56 diseases require national surveillance in Canada, visa officers only screen for two: syphilis and tuberculosis. This hasn’t changed in 50 years. CIC needs to modernize this policy – especially in an age of SARS and other infectious diseases. If someone does have a serious illness, visa officers are supposed to take into account a person’s ability to pay for their own medical care. And yet they have no way of knowing whether such a commitment is actually carried out following the person’s arrival in Canada.
Better intelligence is also needed so that officers can identify applicants who are security risks. This is difficult to do when the CBSA does not have a formal agreement with the RCMP and other government agencies for full access to all security information.
The government should invest more resources in missions overseas so that visa officers have the time and resources to conduct more in-person interviews and to authenticate police certificate clearances. Their case loads are enormous: last year, they processed 1.04 million visitors, and 300,000 permanent residents.
Visas are an important tool used to safeguard the health and security of the country. But the basic elements -- training, updated manuals, clear and enforceable guidelines and support from Ottawa – must be in place or the system will lose its integrity and effectiveness.