(Ed. note: 3 disparate perspectives today)
Sam Jones, Kareem Shaheen in Beirut
Friday 11 September 2015
As neighbouring nations struggle to cope with scale of crisis, agencies report that Syrian refugees stranded in exile may go back to war-ravaged homeland.
Conditions for Syrian refugees in the Middle East are so dire that some are now considering returning to their war-ravaged homeland rather than endure poverty, hunger and a futureless exile in the neighbouring nations where they are stranded, the UN has warned.
Some refugees have been reduced to begging on the streets of the Jordanian capital, Amman, or selling flowers and living rough in Lebanon, aid workers say.
Photoblog: Syrian Refugee Crisis
The EdmontonJournal sent columnist Graham Thomson to Jordan and Lebanon for two weeks to witness Canadian relief efforts during the Syrian refugee crisis. The trip was partly sponsored by the Canadian Foodgrains Bank, which did not approve or review his work. He explored Syrian refugee camps and overwhelmed Lebanese villages, to report on this growing humanitarian crisis.
Click here to see some of the photos that Thomson took while on assignment.
Don’t overstate risk of terrorism among refugees, experts say
The risk that some Islamist terrorists could infiltrate Canada posing as Syrian refugees is a valid concern but shouldn’t be overblown, say national security specialists.
“It is possible that among the stream of wretched refugees desperately looking for a way, that there might be some who aren’t exactly the people we want to bring in,” said Reg Whitaker, a security and intelligence expert and one-time advisor to the commissions of inquiry into the Air India bombing and Maher Arar affair.
Whitaker was reacting to comments Wednesday by Conservative Leader Stephen Harper about how national security will dictate the pace of Canada’s response to the Syrian refugee crisis.
“When we are dealing with people that are from, in many cases, a terrorist war zone, we are going to make sure that we screen people appropriately and the security of this country is fully protected,” Harper said at a campaign stop in Welland, Ont.
“We cannot open the floodgates and airlift tens of thousands of refugees out of a terrorist war zone without proper process. That is too great a risk for Canada,” he added during a question-and-answer session.
Harper’s remarks continue a security narrative the Conservatives launched after the fatal terror attacks by ISIL sympathizers in Ottawa and Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu almost a year ago. National security is a key plank in the party’s election platform.
But the government should not be presenting refugee resettlement here as an either/or option with anti-terrorism efforts, says Scott Watson, an associate professor of international relations at the University of Victoria.
“I think it’s possible to do a large-scale operation of assisting refugees that (also) has a thorough screening component for security reasons, if there was enough political will to do so. I think both can be done,” he said.
“The vast majority of the people have no interest in contributing to further violence. There could be a couple of people who are sympathetic to ISIL coming in, but if there’s proper security screening and proper integration once refugees are brought into the country, I don’t think it’s something we need to be concerned about.”
Besides, “there’s much better ways for them (ISIL) to do what they want to do than to use refugees as the means of doing it,” said Watson.
He and Whitaker have done extensive research on the rise of national security fears that have accompanied concentrated waves of immigration to Canada. Harper’s framing of the Syrian refugee crisis in security terms is similar to concerns, ultimately unfounded, that communist infiltrators would accompany the arrival of Hungarian refugees to Canada in 1956, or with the Cambodian and Vietnamese boat people in the late 1970s.
Whitaker concludes many refugee groups now tend to be seen as importers of external political conflicts to the West.
Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) officers overseas are responsible for much of the security vetting of refugees and immigrants. Many refugees understandably have no official identity documents. But, “you can’t go back to the Syrians or an area that’s no longer under Iraqi government control and say, ‘by the way, is Mohammed a resident of Erbil?’” said Ray Boisvert, a former CSIS assistant director of intelligence.
“You try to do your best to interview them and get a decent sense of their background and see if you can poke any holes in it.”
Boisvert, too, says the current humanitarian need outweighs possible risks from terrorism. “It is a very manageable risk if you’re conscious that there is a risk and that you do not undermine the efforts of CSIS assets to do their job in the screening process.”
Said Whitaker: “When you think about these people crossing the Mediterranean in rickety and unseaworthy boats, some of them drowning and many of them being asphyxiated in trucks, and the mobs that are trying to make their way from Greece and Turkey to Germany, and the idea that somehow through all that you’re going to get people who are carefully planted, who are then immediately going to get accepted into Canada and start wrecking havoc is just plain, downright silly.”