OTTAWA/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Canada’s government will inevitably have to cut some corners on security screening to achieve its ambitious goal of bringing in 25,000 Syrian refugees by year-end, said current and former security sources.
The plan by newly elected Prime Minister Justin Trudeau seeks to complete in six weeks a process that can take up to two years in the United States, where last Friday’s attacks in Paris have sparked a political backlash against plans to allow in 10,000 Syrians over the coming year.
In Canada, which shares about 5,500 miles (8,850 km) of relatively porous border with the United States, Friday’s attacks have prompted calls for Trudeau to push back the Jan. 1 deadline to ensure all the refugees are properly screened.
Trudeau has vowed to stick to the plan, reiterating the security of Canadians would be paramount when dealing with the refugees.
The Canadian plan will entail background checks that include biometric and fingerprint checks, as well as health assessments. Some screening will have to be done after the refugees arrive in Canada given the short time frame.
That could create vulnerabilities, said one recently retired Canadian intelligence official, since a refugee could already be in the country by the time any red flags are raised by the screening.
“You can’t say that when you cut some corners and speed up the system that it’s completely risk-free,” said the former official, who has knowledge of the immigration system.
Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale told a briefing on Wednesday that he expected the vast majority of the work to be done before refugees arrived in Canada, and he said the intention was for all the database work to be finished.
The ex-official said it was unclear if the refugees would immediately be free to settle in Canada or would be detained in some way pending further screening.
A current Canadian intelligence official said there was “a clear risk” given the pace at which security screeners would have to work to interview, select and process such a high volume of applicants.
Josee Sirois, a spokeswoman for the Public Safety ministry, said that a “thorough” screening process would be in place, but that the vast majority of Syrian refugees “pose little or no risk to Canada.”
In the United States, two dozen state governors, mostly Republicans, have vowed not to accept any refugees, despite reassurances from the State Department that the immigrants will be rigorously screened to block any potential militants.
Rand Beers, former deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, said that weaker security screening north of the border would be a worry.
“There would be a concern for anything that is less than our screening, and even we would say that our screening isn’t perfect,” he said.
Canada will primarily focus on families with children under the age of 18 who have been in Lebanon, Turkey or Jordan since the beginning of the Syrian conflict in 2011, said an intelligence source and a non-government source familiar with deliberations.
The first step in the Canadian plan is to select refugees registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), then conduct checks against Interpol, Canadian security and immigration as well as foreign allies’ watchlists before issuing permanent or temporary residence permits.
Canadian immigration and border agents who have been dispatched to the region, most of them in Beirut, will select the refugees and raise any red flags to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police or Canada’s spy agency for deeper screening.
Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall, who asked Trudeau to suspend the plan on Monday citing security concerns, said the government was moving too quickly and questioned whether normal vetting steps were being skipped.
“We’re going from years to a couple of months in terms of the wait time or the process,” Wall said on CBC TV.
The process for screening and admitting refugees into the United States lasts between 18 months and two years. The Department of Homeland Security travels to screen refugees outside the United States and they are only admitted after passing security and health checks.
Biographical and biometric data is matched up with any available databases including travel and criminal records to confirm the identity of the applicant.
The FBI, Defense Department, State Department and National Counterterrorism Center all work to screen applicants.
Canadian Foreign Minister Stephane Dion, asked in Manila whether Washington had expressed security concerns about the plan, said: “Everything that we have heard is that our initiative is welcome and everyone wants to cooperate with this – the United States, but also Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan.”
Spokespeople at the White House and Homeland Security did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
A European government source said British security authorities do not regard Syrian refugees as a major source of or cover for terror activities. About 100 Syrian refugees arrived in Scotland on Tuesday.
Countries such as Germany and the United States also conduct their own security checks after the UNHCR registers an applicant.
“It is a slow process,” said a Western diplomat in Beirut, whose country has taken in Syrian refugees. “The UNHCR doesn’t do its own security checks.”
Goodale, Canada’s public safety minister, has said there were domestic laws to deal with those who fail the screening process conducted after their arrival in Canada. The process of deporting refugees can be legally difficult and lengthy.
The two Canadian intelligence sources said such an outcome posed headaches for the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), which would then have to monitor the individuals.
“You could end up with CSIS having to place 20 agents tracking him for years to come,” said the retired intelligence official.
However, CSIS Director Michel Coulombe said at a news conference on Wednesday he was satisfied with the process and confident the measures were “robust.”
Additional reporting by Sylvia Westall in Beirut, Mike De Souza in Calgary, David Ljunggren in Manila, Mark Hosenball in Washington, Editing by Stuart Grudgings