Evidence of meeting #39 for Citizenship and Immigration in the 41st Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site, as are the minutes.) The winning word was refugee.

A recording is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

3:45 p.m.

John Amble As an Individual

It's close. It's coming close to nine o'clock.

3:45 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair David Tilson

I am really pleased to see the palm trees behind you.

3:45 p.m.

As an Individual

John Amble

You wouldn't know it, but the weather is not quite so nice here.

3:45 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair David Tilson

Thank you, sir, for participating with the committee. You have up to ten minutes.

3:45 p.m.

As an Individual

John Amble

Thank you.

Mr. Chair, honourable members, I am privileged to speak to you today. Thank you for having me back and thank you for the opportunity to provide some comments on the bill at hand, Bill C-31.

I have studied extensively the phenomenon of homegrown terrorism in the West. During the course of my research, I have looked closely at the connection between the threat of terrorism, and asylum laws in refugee application-processing programs. I am not an expert on the intricacies of asylum laws in any given country, including Canada, but I am happy to speak to the security implications of the systems that I have encountered.

My comments will be limited to these security implications. I hope you understand, if I acknowledge areas in which I might be less than qualified to offer an assessment of aspects of the bill in question that extend beyond the realm of security, and particularly the dangers of terrorism. I want to strongly qualify my comments by stating that the risk of terrorism is not proportionate to the number of a country's immigrants, either legal or illegal; to the number of approved asylum requests; or to the number of people who remain, say, in a country despite being denied asylum.

However, the evidence does show that a risk arises when either asylum and refugee processing structures are not properly developed or the laws are inadequately enforced.

It is in the highest tradition of western democratic values to welcome immigrants of all origins. Nowhere have such values been put into practice more fully than in North America, particularly in Canada. However, equally important are our government's responsibilities of ensuring accountability and providing security.

As an American, I can say unequivocally that Canada's reputation as a nation that both welcomes and values its immigrants is well known in the U.S. Living in the U.K. and travelling across Europe and elsewhere in the world, I certainly have the sense that Canada is viewed as a beacon of hope and opportunity around the globe. However, paired with this welcoming reputation is a certain awareness, at times even a cynical appreciation, of Canada's very generous social welfare programs and their extensive availability to newly arrived immigrants.

This is something shared with other countries as well, mainly those in western Europe. Too often, this generosity is exploited, as it often is here in the U.K., and notably in Scandinavian countries as well, for example. As I understand it, ending the manipulative exploitation of such programs, which sometimes carries on for an extended period of time, is one of several objectives of the bill being discussed here today.

From my standpoint, I would argue that there is also a security component to this. Recent history from European countries certainly shows that Byzantine refugee legal structures are sometimes exploited by people who threaten the security of the host country. Thus, you have senior radicalizing preachers and a number of convicted terrorists who have claimed asylum and subsequently received surprisingly large sums of money through very generous social welfare programs. Many of these individuals are currently in prison.

To give an example that involves Canada, in the so-called millennium bomb plot, an individual named Ahmed Ressam planned to detonate a bomb at Los Angeles International Airport, which was thwarted at the Canada-U.S. border in December of 1999, as I'm sure you all know. Ressam had entered Canada in 1994 on a fake passport. He was arrested and he applied for refugee status. He was released pending a hearing and subsequently received several years' worth of social welfare benefits. When his application was denied, he appealed, and that too was denied in 1998. However, no removal order could be carried out, because at that time, he was at a training camp in Afghanistan. He would later return on a fraudulently obtained Canadian passport.

Incidentally, another millennium plot was disrupted just days later, halfway around the world in Frankfurt, Germany. Four men were arrested who were believed to be planning to blow up the Strasbourg Christmas market just across the border in France. Two of those arrested were failed asylum seekers living in Britain, whom the British government had failed to deport for several years.

Now, anecdotes are not a suitable substitute for the broader data that appropriately reflects the realities on which effective policy is based. But such incidents do illuminate the security implications of refugee and asylum policy, and are instructive in any discussion of such policy.

Practically speaking, I would like to highlight two factors of immigration laws that can weaken a country's ability to safeguard against the threat of terrorism. The first is when systems are overburdened and the asylum application process is delayed by backlogs, potentially allowing somebody entering the country under false pretenses and with a goal of conducting a terrorist attack a lengthy period of time in which to move freely within the country.

The second factor is a matter of inadequate enforcement of immigration laws, allowing failed asylum seekers to remain in the country. This is a problem that seems to impact the U.K. quite considerably.

To mitigate against such dangers, there should be some means of maintaining an awareness of where those asylum seekers are, so that removal orders can be implemented for those whose applications or appeals are denied.

In addition to addressing the challenge of knowing where asylum seekers are once they enter Canada, it is also important to know specifically who they are. For a variety of reasons, this task can be considerably more difficult than it sounds.

Insofar as it is prudent to know who exactly is entering the country, not just as a refugee but under any visa or permit program, biometric data provides a very valuable tool. I understand that expanding the use of such information is part of the legislation this committee is examining.

I'll conclude here with three recommendations based on my research that I believe can enhance the security of Canada's refugee laws.

First, every effort should be made to expedite the process to grant refugee or asylum status in the minimum period of time that continues to allow for a complete and secure investigation. In addition to making the process run more smoothly generally by removing backlogs, I think such an action can have a real impact on improving security by eliminating the sometimes very long window during which an asylum seeker who enters the country with any sort of nefarious intent might be free to, for instance, plan and execute an attack.

Second, a system should recognize that some countries of origin produce a disproportionate number of those involved with terrorism globally. To that end, identifying a list of so-called safe countries, as this bill would allow, can also have a very positive second-order effect. It will allow for greater emphasis on applications from individuals coming from those countries with known human rights abuse issues, some of which are also more likely to produce a worryingly large number of the world's terrorists. That being said, this should also be balanced with the very critical appreciation that terrorists may also, at any time, arrive from countries that don't fit the traditional profile.

Finally, refugee processes should embrace newly developed advances in technology, as I discussed earlier, such as those that allow agencies to collect, access, and store biometric information safely. Relationships with other governments that also make use of such tools should be leveraged. Ties with countries with whom Canada has enjoyed long-standing information-sharing relationships should be enhanced, but new agreements should also be formalized where prudent.

Like the U.S., Canada has historically benefited from a great degree of security by virtue of the vast oceans to its east and west. But as threats to national security have evolved to encompass many for which these natural barriers are less effective, and as global population movements have become simpler, faster, and cheaper, information-sharing relationships with a wider variety of partners can be expected to pay major dividends.

With that, Mr. Chair, I will end my remarks.

Thank you again for the invitation to appear today. I look forward to answering any questions you may have.

3:50 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair David Tilson

Thank you, Mr. Amble. I'm sure the committee will have some questions for you.

The first person to ask questions is John Weston.

May 3rd, 2012 / 3:55 p.m.

Conservative

John Weston West Vancouver—Sunshine Coast—Sea to Sky Country, BC

Mr. Amble, thank you for being with us.

Many witnesses have come before our committee. You were here several months ago, and it's probably a testament to the rigour of your academic study and its important substance that I remember clearly your testimony from several months ago. I suspect several of my colleagues here do as well.

I recall that you talked about sleeper cells in the U.K. and about how people who were born and bred in that country were themselves being radicalized.

That's a bit of a backdrop, because we're also looking today at refugees in the context of an overall refugee policy. The kinds of stories that Sharalyn related to us this morning make any red-blooded Canadian quiver. We're all united in our desire to continue to be the country known for our compassion and as a safe haven for people from around the world.

I appreciate all of you being here.

Our Charter of Rights talks about balance, and you've used the word “balance” a couple of times in what you said today, Mr. Amble. It talks about certain undeniable rights that may be limited in ways that are explicable in a free and democratic society—I'm paraphrasing a little bit.

The point is that we need to achieve balance. The detention provisions that are being looked at here would apply to a very small percentage of refugees—fewer than 1%, in fact—who come by way of what's known as “irregular arrival”.

My first question is this, then. Can you focus us on balance? If we desire to be a safe haven, if we desire to keep our gates open for those who would come to our country, persecuted either because of their sexual orientation or their political belief or anything else, how do we achieve that balance while keeping out the kinds of people who threaten our democracy and the safety and security of our children and our families?

3:55 p.m.

As an Individual

John Amble

There are several things I'd like to highlight. One is that a number of principles need to be embodied in whatever effective asylum laws are put in place. Chief amongst those principles is the balance between security, accountability, openness, and fairness. Certainly, the stories of those who see Canada as a refuge, who have faced persecution for a variety of reasons, are heartbreaking at times.

In the interest of balance, I think it's also important to recognize the large number of stories of people who have abused those sorts of systems. This happens frequently. It tends to be a bigger problem, I think, in the U.K. and a few other European countries than maybe it has been in Canada. However, there's the example I gave you of Ahmed Ressam, the millennium bomb plotter who blatantly abused the Canadian refugee process. It happens elsewhere as well, and it's part of the trend in terms of liberalizing immigration laws.

In 1983, for instance, there were 80,000 asylum applications across the entire continent of Europe. Nine years later, in 1992, there were 700,000. It rose by almost a factor of 10. Islamists took advantage of the opportunity to hide in these massive crowds, and many of them became part of what would later be described as the first wave of Europe-based jihadists, and would become key figures in a number of terror cases. Abu Hamza, the notorious firebrand preacher who's currently serving a seven-year prison sentence and facing extradition from the U.K. to the U.S. when he's released, was among them. Ramzi bin al-Shibh eventually served as a Europe-based coordinator for the 9/11 attacks, after having been given asylum status in Germany.

I would say that an awareness of those stories and many others should inform effective policy.

3:55 p.m.

Conservative

John Weston West Vancouver—Sunshine Coast—Sea to Sky Country, BC

We've heard from people who oppose the provisions proposed by this government that up to 6% of the refugees who come in via irregular ways could be security threats.

I'm going to turn my attention to Mr. Deakin-Macey from my home province of British Columbia. You mentioned the incidents of the Sun Sea and the Ocean Lady. We found that 41 persons from those two groups were either considered to be security risks or actual terrorists. That was a fairly large portion of the persons involved.

I suspect, based on your background, that you want to defend our refugee program for generations to come. Yet if we were to allow such people to roam free, not be detained, what do you think would be the impact on future Canadians of our willingness to keep our gates open?

4 p.m.

Past President, Board of Directors, Victoria Immigrant and Refugee Centre Society, As an Individual

Michael Deakin-Macey

Based on the reaction the Canadian public had, which was published, for example, in the Toronto Star, three out of five Canadians—60%—said that we should have just turned the boat around and sent it away. God forbid—the thing probably would have sunk, and then we would have had the horrible responsibility for having done that and would have been out rescuing them. That's the same proportion as the federal election. It took a lot of moxie, in light of what was going on, to say we were going to override all of that and bring them in anyway.

I think detention is entirely appropriate in terms of what goes on. When you think in terms of some of the security implications amongst other things, you pretty much have to detain. We did the right thing. We made sure every one of them was well taken care of. They got medical care right away. This was the Canadian way—in keeping with how we lead our lives and how we treat people. Despite that, we still found 41 out of the total, which I believe was 76 on the Ocean Lady and 492 on the other.

4 p.m.

Conservative

John Weston West Vancouver—Sunshine Coast—Sea to Sky Country, BC

Let me just slip in one more comment before my time—

4 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair David Tilson

No, I'm sorry.

Madame Groguhé.

I'm sorry, Mr. Weston. We're out of time.

4 p.m.

Conservative

John Weston West Vancouver—Sunshine Coast—Sea to Sky Country, BC

I don't think you're sorry at all, Mr. Chair.

4 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair David Tilson

No, I'm not.

4 p.m.

NDP

Sadia Groguhé Saint-Lambert, QC

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

I would like to come back to the importance of keeping a balance between the safety of Canadians and welcoming individuals, some of whom may be under threat. For that, I'd like to quote the Supreme Court of Canada:

…the challenge for a democratic state's answer to terrorism calls for a balancing of what is required for an effective response to terrorism in a way that appropriately recognizes the fundamental values of the rule of law. In a democracy, not every response is available to meet the challenge of terrorism.

I stress the expression "rule of law".

This brings me to my question for you, ladies. In terms of this bill, do you think that refugee claimants who fear persecution because of their sexual orientation will be at a disproportionate disadvantage with the introduction of this idea of designated countries? Could you give us a few examples of countries or regions where the vast majority of refugee claimants are fleeing from to come to Canada because they fear persecution in their country of origin as a result of their sexual orientation or gender identity?