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.