Canada is vastly expanding the collecting of fingerprints and digital photos from foreigners seeking to enter this country under a security crackdown aimed at broadening Ottawa's ability to catch terrorists, fraudulent immigrants and jihadis returning from battles overseas.
Sources say Prime Minister Stephen Harper will announce Thursday that Canada will start gathering biometric information from all foreign travellers entering on a visa and arriving at this country's biggest airports. This will cover the majority of foreign arrivals.
Ottawa currently collects fingerprints and photographs from travellers hailing from 29 countries, including Afghanistan, Syria and Pakistan. This new measure will expand the number of targeted countries to about 150, or every jurisdiction where citizens are obliged to obtain a visa before they visit Canada. This includes those applying for a work or study permit, as well as applicants for temporary visitor visas or permanent residency. Foreigners are charged for the cost of this biometric data gathering and the current fee is $85 per person or $170 per family.
The Harper government is expected to frame this big increase in the scope of biometric screening as necessary because the security risks faced by Canada are greater now.
Canada is bombing Islamic State terrorists in Iraq and Syria and lending its special forces soldiers to assist Kurds trying to beat back the extremist group that seized control of significant territory in the region last year. In response, Islamic State forces have called on adherents to attack Canadians. Two soldiers in Canada were killed in October by self-professed jihadis.
Ottawa is also concerned about the threat posed by people who have travelled overseas to fight jihad and then return, having become even more radicalized and posing a threat here at home. Last fall, security officials estimated about 80 individuals have travelled abroad to participate in terrorist activity in the Middle East and North Africa and have since returned to Canada.
Mr. Harper is expected to unveil the measure at a hotel in North York in the Greater Toronto Area – a venue that falls within the riding of Eglinton-Lawrence. This seat is held by Joe Oliver, the federal Finance Minister. It's possible Mr. Oliver may face a challenge during the federal election this fall from floor-crosser Eve Adams, an MP who left the Conservatives and is seeking the Liberal nomination in Eglinton-Lawrence.
The fingerprints and photos will give Canadian authorities more tools to verify the identity of those entering the country and to detect forged passports or other documents. Applicants must allow their fingerprints and photos to be taken at overseas visa application centres, and when they arrive in Canada a Border Services officer will verify they are same people who applied for the visa.
A source said the government is concerned the existing biometric screening requirements for 29 countries are not sufficient because would-be fraudsters may be avoiding identity documents from those nations and instead trying to enter Canada through countries not already on the target list.
The biometic screening measures are also aimed at foreigners convicted of crimes in Canada who have been deported but try to return here. In 2012, Ottawa dubbed one duo convicted of armed robbery and forcible confinement the "Yo-yo bandits" because they had each been deported three times and returned.
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the Canadian Border Services Agency and the Department of Citizenship and Immigration are jointly managing the screening. The government is keeping this biometric information on a database that may be shared with the RCMP and other law enforcement agencies.
The Department of Citizenship and Immigration says the biometric screening measures in place since 2013 flagged 300 individuals seeking asylum in Canada who had already claimed asylum in the United States, 750 individuals who were fingerprinted by U.S. authorities for law-enforcement reasons and almost 600 people who had "significant discrepancies in their identity information."
It also said it was able to identify about 60 per cent of those applicants who had a criminal record but who did not indicate they had been previously convicted or charged with an offence on their visa application.