Commentary by Phil Gurski
How many of you remember when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau greeted Syrian refugees a few years back at Pearson Airport in Toronto with the phrase “You are home?” Some may have seen this as a cynical ploy and there were certainly those who criticised him for telling refugees that Canada would welcome them. Especially as this was seen as an open invitation that later led to tens of thousands of “irregular migrants” who crossed into Quebec from the United States. There are even politicians like Maxime Bernier who want us to decrease refugee and immigrant acceptance rates.
We are, like it or not, a nation of immigrants (with the exception, of course, of the original First Nations. Although they too came from somewhere else, albeit tens of thousands of years ago). I am third generation Canadian; my grandparents came to this wonderful land a century ago. I am grateful for the sacrifices and risks they took. Canada would not be Canada without immigrants. I would rather live nowhere else.
Despite this, there are voices that warn against immigration and refugees, citing national security and public safety concerns. I cannot tell you how many times I have read analyses whereby “experts” say terrorist groups are using immigrant/refugee flows to infiltrate Western societies. But I must add that I have yet to see any evidence that this is happening. For my part, I don’t think this is as pervasive as some claim. Its too uncertain and takes too long for the aims of terrorist organisations which will want results now.
Bad Actors Are the Exception, Not the Rule
Once in a while, however, the naysayers are shown to be correct. Just yesterday the FBI charged a Syrian refugee in Pittsburgh with planning to attack a church on behalf Islamic State (IS). See, they will say, we told you so! Man the barricades!
Even if this case is still unfolding and we have to presume innocence, it appears to be an actual incidence of a refugee terrorist. On that we have to accept what we know so far. This should not, however, be extrapolated to all refugees and immigrants. As in all fields, its a bad idea to use a dataset of one to construct an argument.
In truth, the threat is not, and never will be, zero. If you are seeking a world where nothing bad ever happens please let me in on the address of the parallel universe where this is a reality. We in Canada have agencies like CSIS (Canadian Security Intelligence Service), the RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police), Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) and Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC) who do their best to collect information to vet applicants and keep out those who intend to do harm and they do a good job at that. But they cannot provide a 100% guarantee and we should not expect as much.
A Global Effort is Needed
I think Canada plays a vital role in accepting immigrants and refugees. We are distinguishing ourselves on the world stage (although many countries – like Jordan – have taken in those fleeing danger at levels several orders of magnitude larger than us), especially with respect to the US which has slashed cases, most likely thanks to comments by their boy president. Stories like this one which show what average citizens can do warm my heart. I want us to keep doing this.
The UN said more than 68.5 million people were refugees or internally-displaced around the world in 2017. That works out to 44,400 people displaced per day. As global citizens we need to open our doors and hearts to those forced to flee their homes. Yes the danger is there but it is minimal. We cannot allow an outlier event like that in Pittsburgh define our policies and actions.
Phil Gurski is a former terrorism analyst at the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS). He specializes in radicalization and homegrown Al Qaeda/Islamic State/Islamist-inspired extremism and has published several books, including the forthcoming When Religions Kill: how extremists justify violence through faith.” He is a member of New Canadian Media’s board of directors.