Syrian Canadians say they fear they will face prosecution in Canada for visiting family in the country of their birth under a new law that is being proposed by Conservative Leader Stephen Harper.
And experts say the ban Mr. Harper is promising to place on travel to regions controlled by terrorists is more about politicking during an election year than reducing attacks by agents of the Islamic State in this country.
"There is a lot of concern," Faisal Alazem, a spokesman for the Syrian Canadian Council, said Monday of the proposed travel ban. "It's not passing very well, I can tell you, in the community."
Hundreds of Syrian Canadians travel back to Syria every year, said Mr. Alazem. Some take part in medical missions in the war-torn country and some work as journalists – both groups that the Conservatives say would be exempted from prosecution under the proposed new law.
But there are also people who travel there to visit family members, said Mr. Alazem. "I know personally of cases of people that went to visit their parents that were very old, that couldn't make the trip to Turkey so they crossed from Turkey into Syria," he said.
Although radicalized Westerners have been caught trying to cross the Turkish border into Syria to join the Islamic State, that is not the only reason why someone might want to sneak into the country, said Mr. Alazem. Innocent people also take that route, he said, to avoid the eye of the Syrian government that has been known to make people disappear over an unfavourable posting on social media.
Mr. Harper, who was campaigning Monday in Markham, north of Toronto, defended the ban, saying it would apply only to those regions that are under the control of terrorists.
There is already legislation in Canada that forbids Canadians from travelling abroad to fight with terrorist groups, but this would ban the act of travel itself.
"We're talking about a very small number of areas in the world – obviously parts of Iraq and Syria would be the kinds of areas that we're talking about," said Mr. Harper. "Frankly, these are not areas where families go. These are areas where we know why people are really going. They are going for terrorist training."
In addition to diplomats, aid workers and reporters, people who go to these dangerous areas to fight against Canada's enemies would also be exempt from prosecution, a Conservative spokesman said Tuesday – though he stressed that his party would discourage such mercenary activity.
Ian Bradbury, the founder of the 1st North American Expeditionary Force, which provides trainers, mentors and advisers to foreign militaries, including the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional government in its fight against the Islamic State, said in an e-mail that he supports the proposed travel ban.
"However, I believe it is a half measure that addresses only a symptom of a much bigger problem and does little towards fixing more critical root problems," Mr. Bradbury said. "Ultimately, our nation's response to ISIS and the humanitarian crisis they have left in their wake and those of our global partners has been totally insufficient thus far."
Wesley Wark, an expert on national security, intelligence and terrorism who teaches at the University of Ottawa, said the proposal was "clearly a piece of politicking."
If the Conservatives had been serious about introducing such measures, they would have been included in a controversial anti-terrorism bill that was passed into law earlier this year, said Dr. Wark. That law has been the subject of protests by people who say it detracts from civil liberties by giving police too much power with too little oversight.
If the travel ban becomes a reality, it may be possible for innocent people to get caught up in it, said Dr. Wark. That will depend, he said, on the types of safeguards that are built into the legislation and whether there is a more robust debate in Parliament than was permitted by the Conservatives prior to the passage of the anti-terror law.
Lorne Dawson, a sociology professor at the University of Waterloo who studies terrorist radicalization, said the travel ban will not stop anyone from travelling overseas to fight with the jihadists.
"Anyone who radicalized to the point where they are actually intending to go, this will have no deterrent effect at all because they already recognize when they are going that they are potentially throwing their whole lives here away," Dr. Dawson said. "They recognize they are engaging in an illegal act to fight for ISIS under the laws already."
He said it appears that it is being introduced to make it easier to prosecute people who are suspected of taking part in jihadist activities. But it is a "blunt tool," he said, and, unlike programs that are now in effect in Europe and the United States, it does nothing to prevent youth from being radicalized.
"So yes it does have some impact in terms of quick and easy arrests," Dr. Dawson said, "but that's not a long-term solution to this problem. And, more importantly, if they think it's a deterrent, forget it. We already have all the deterrents you need on the books and they're not working."