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The Nigerian syndicate's global chapters focus on large-scale fraud.KACPER PEMPEL/Reuters

Canadian immigration authorities have known for more than a decade about the Black Axe, a shadowy criminal group that originated in Nigeria. But that does not mean it is easy to identify its leaders.

A Globe investigation found that the group, which began as a university fraternity, is spreading around the world, including to Canada. Long associated with murders and rapes in Nigeria, the Black Axe's global chapters are focused on large-scale fraud, and police believe that Torontonians linked to it have duped their fellow residents out of millions.

But the group sometimes recruits and retains members by force, making it unclear who is a perpetrator, who is a victim and whether Canada's system discourages claimants from being open about their experiences with the group.

Immigration authorities have generally rejected refugee claimants who say they are coming to Canada in an attempt to break ties with the Black Axe because they assume that they have committed crimes. However, those who keep their involvement secret may find it easier to enter the country. That encourages more silence around the organization in Canada, even among the vast majority of Nigerian-Canadians who want to exorcize it from their community.

"If immigration tags [an applicant] as a member, yes, that would discourage people from talking about it," said Bassey Osagie, a Toronto Police Services sergeant who immigrated from Nigeria in 1995.

People who speak openly about their time in the Black Axe are likely committed to fighting the group, and it is "not fair" to consider them loyal members, he said. For members who complain publicly, "there would be consequences" from the group.

Canadian refugee claim hearings are not made public unless they reach an appeal in federal court, so it is unclear how often the Black Axe has come up before the Immigration and Refugee Board. However, at least six claimants who said they were fleeing the Black Axe have made court appeals.

In 2005, a man named Jones Onyekwere arrived in Montreal and gave a statement saying the Black Axe had recruited him for his father's money and a friend persuaded him to join for his own protection. He said he later had a change of heart, warning people on the group's hit list that their lives were in danger. The cult turned on him and he went into hiding, his family was taken hostage and his sister raped, he said.

After waiting with other Nigerian claimants at the airport in Montreal, he changed his story to say he had been part of an activist group. But the board found his first statement had "abundant details" and was true. Mr. Onyekwere had realized belatedly that the very reason for his claim would also give Canada grounds to exclude him, the board decided.

Under Canadian law, anyone who has committed a serious non-political crime can be denied refugee status. That policy has little to do with public safety, said Pia Zambelli, a Montreal lawyer who represented another former Black Axe member.

"They don't get excluded from refugee status because they're dangerous," she said. "The idea is that they're not deserving of protection, because people who make refugees, or create refugees, shouldn't have the benefit of refugee status."

In the past year, the rules have been relaxed after two key cases, she said. Now, a claimant needs to be found guilty of ordering or carrying out a crime – direct involvement – and cannot be found guilty by association, as Mr. Onyekwere was.

Authorities do criminality and security checks on all citizenship applicants, said Theodora Jean, a spokeswoman for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada. Applicants must provide a police check from any country where they have spent at least six months in the four years before their application. Officials can also request fingerprints and court documents, Ms. Jean said.

However, that system may not work well when organized crime is involved. In Nigeria, the police are often complicit with the Black Axe, Mr. Osagie said.

"The police don't have the training or the will to deal with the issue," he said. "People will naturally keep it secret."