OTTAWA – Nearly half of foreign nationals flagged by security agencies to the Immigration Department for ties to serious offences including war crimes, espionage and terrorism were allowed to take up residency in Canada between 2014 and 2019.
An internal audit of the Immigration National Security Screening Program found that immigration officials ultimately approved temporary or permanent residency, or refugee applications for 46 per cent of the more than 7,000 cases where the Canadian Border Security Agency (CBSA) recommended against applicants being allowed into the country.
“That’s super-concerning. It means that there’s a disconnect between the partner agencies engaged in the processing of foreign nationals seeking entry into Canada. It’s really alarming,” said criminologist and former long-time border services officer Kelly Sundberg.
The data are contained in an internal audit quietly published earlier this year by the CBSA, which was to assess the effectiveness and efficiency of the country’s Immigration National Security Screening Program between 2014 and 2019.
The program is run by CBSA’s national security screening division, often in collaboration with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS). Its goal is to “prevent inadmissible foreign nationals or permanent residents from entering or remaining in Canada,” according to the audit.
To do so, security screeners review temporary or permanent residence applications or refugee claims flagged by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) as posing a potential security risk.
Screeners then assess the potential inadmissibility of applicants under sections of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act that deal with serious crimes such as espionage, terrorism, crimes against humanity, or organized criminality, and then submit a recommendation to IRCC officers.
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The vast majority of applicants are screened positively and are allowed into the country. But of the 7,141 cases where security screeners sent IRCC a “non-favourable” recommendation during the years covered by the audit, 3,314 were allowed into Canada, the report noted.
Most (1,887) of those individuals were let into Canada because another government department pushed for their applications to be approved “in the national interest for high-profile foreign nationals who are inadmissible” via a “public-policy exemption,” the audit noted.
Only 177 were approved because IRCC disagreed with CBSA’s assessment.
In a statement, IRCC spokesperson Nancy Caron said that the final decision on whether a foreign national should be admissible into Canada or not is made by immigration officers at IRCC, not the CBSA.
If an officer determines that an applicant is inadmissible to Canada on serious grounds such as violating human rights or organized crime, an exemption can be granted if “it is deemed that the entry of this person is in Canada’s interest,” she said.
“Public policy exemptions are issued on a case-by-case and exceptional basis,” IRCC added in a statement.
Caron denied that immigration officials would decline to follow security screening recommendations because they don’t trust CBSA’s work, noting that IRCC staff are “satisfied” with the quality of the screening results.
As the federal government grapples with accusations it ignored repeated and serious warnings by national security agencies for years about foreign interference, particularly by China, Sundberg says this audit is another wake-up call.
“This is yet another example of why we need to have serious review of how policing, security and intelligence are undertaken in this country and how to co-ordinate it and make it more efficient and effective,” he said.
He also said that if CBSA or another security screening agency says a foreign national shouldn’t be let in, then that should be the definitive answer.
“When it happens 46 per cent of the time, why the hell even bother having CBSA then? Why did you ask them in the first place if you’re basically flipping a coin? This is yet another example of why we need to have serious oversight and constant audit of CBSA and its relationship with other agencies,” Sundberg said.
“That’s not how migration and border security should work,” he added.
Both the audit and Caron noted that none of the foreign nationals who were flagged as non-favourable and still let into Canada have faced “enforcement actions” since.
But Sundberg says that argument is “rubbish” and the CBSA audit noted that is far from a perfect measuring stick.
“It should be noted that not all risk is captured through enforcement actions, nor can it be fully monitored through surveillance,” reads the document.
“Having these individuals in Canada could have negative consequences for the country’s reputation or result in actions that are more difficult to intercept and act on (e.g. business espionage or threatening Canadian residents), particularly as most of these individuals are short-term visitors.”
The audit does not note why so many public-policy exemptions were granted, but it does highlight the fact that there were two major and unexpected influxes of applications during the five years covered by the audit.
The first was Operation Syrian Refugee, during which the government resettled over 26,000 Syrians to Canada within three months, starting in December 2015. The second was the sudden influx of 55,000 irregular migrants entering Canada at the U.S. border, mainly via Roxham Road in Quebec, between July 2017 and March 2020.
The audit also notes that the vast majority of cases where CBSA came back to IRCC with an “inconclusive” finding, the applicant was also allowed into Canada by IRCC. An inconclusive assessment happens when CBSA is not able to collect sufficient information about a foreign national to make a recommendation.
The audit noted that the security screening “only issues inconclusive results when concerns may exist and cannot be ruled out, (and screening division) managers and some analysts note that inconclusive screenings should indicate a warning to IRCC rather than a ‘green light’ to proceed with the application.”
“On the other hand, without specific information indicating inadmissibility, the IRCC officers generally do not have sufficient grounds on which to deny the application.”
Caron confirmed that an inconclusive finding by CBSA meant immigration officers are hard-pressed to deny an application, as they would have to defend their decision in court if the applicant files an appeal.
The audit noted that although the number of entrants to Canada originally screened as “inconclusive” that were then detained or deported was “low,” they could nevertheless be of serious concern to the government.
“One individual with an inconclusive screening result was authorized entry to Canada but was later alleged to be a member of a terrorist organization and ended up in the Removal inventory (for deportation); as such, the risk to public safety of this individual being in Canada was potentially very high,” the report noted.
Unnamed stakeholders also told CBSA auditors that the fact so many non-favourable and even inconclusive findings are overridden by IRCC is causing “significant negative” morale issues at CBSA’s screening division and “undermines the integrity of the security screening process.”
CBSA auditors found that 295 of of the over 420,000 applications who received a favourable recommendation from CBSA between 2014 and 2019 were later investigated and set to be deported. Roughly half of the applicants in that group were found to be members of a terrorist organization.
The internal evaluation also highlighted a number of issues within CBSA’s screening division, notably that it had persistent backlogs and rarely delivered its recommendations within expected deadlines.
And while the screening division successfully dealt with a number of surges in its backlog between 2014 and 2019, it “remains vulnerable to future sudden increases.”
The evaluation also found that the division had few ways to measure its performances and there were co-ordination and communication issues between the division’s headquarters and regional offices, “resulting in misalignment between their respective screening activities.”
The audit also called on the government to add the RCMP to the immigration screening process.