I have a new colleague, a Pakistani-Canadian named Akhtar, who had been a stress analyst with Thales Alenia Space, a division of Aerospatiale in France, before he migrated to Canada.
Where I work, a new employee has to go through a very elaborate security vetting procedure. Short of poking around your rectum with a rubber gloved, Vaseline coated middle finger, my employers will stop at nothing to find out if you have been up to anything naughty while you were gone.
One part of the vetting process entails requiring a ‘police report’ from the employee’s native country, if he was born there, in Akhtar’s case – Pakistan. Now, I don’t know about you but to me it seems absurd. For someone who came to France as the teenaged son of a refugee from a third world nation (like Akhtar did), a police report sounds like an oxymoron. If you leave home and go live with someone else whose only caveat is that you trash your family and claim persecution in order to gain acceptance in your new home, your family would consider it an insult. Would you expect your family to issue a positive character certificate?
The request for Akhtar’s police report trickled down through multiple bureaucratic channels until it landed on the desk of the havaldar at the Satto Katla Police Chowki, in Lahore, under whose jurisdiction Akhtar’s parents’ house belonged, where his parents and retired and settled back to. One fine day, after the passage of a month, a khaki-clad constable came calling. Akhtar’s dad was home.
There is an Urdu term for ‘let’s cut the crap, I have work ta do. We do not have any record that shows your son even existed here in Pakistan. 3000 rupees and he gets to keep his job and continue living in Canada. Pay nothing and I accidentally lose this piece of paper and he starts all over again. Or worse, I write out a report stating that he got his bachelors in Tora Bora under a bearded Saudi millionaire with a Kalashnikov. Now what’s it going ta be, Gramps?’ (I swear there is an Urdu term for all that).
Now I know you are my reader and you love reading what I write. That puts you in a class of human beings who are definitely not stupid. So you must have guessed that Akhtar’s dad paid up, pronto, without question. Akhtar’s police report breezed through, crossing continents at the speed of light and when it landed on his HR Counsellor’s desk, she was amazed at the glowing praise for Akhtar in it. If it had come from the Canadian Government instead, folks would easily mistake it for an Order of Canada citation.
The Pakistani police hadn’t spent even a microsecond investigating – the very purpose for which the police report had been requested. Akhtar, a Muslim and a refugee, from the most dangerous and corrupt terrorist sponsor in the world, Pakistan, received a positive and entirely authentic police report, in exchange for the equivalent of $25.
Thank goodness, Akhtar is entirely harmless, a double PhD with three patents under his belt.
That would have been that, had it not been for a podcast that I was listening to, on the Syrian Refugee Crisis the other day. Let me first give you a background first –
The realization that two of the perpetrators of the November 13th terror attacks in Paris, were extremists who had entered France pretending to be Syrian refugees fleeing the Syrian Civil War, has shaken those western nations who had just begun basking in the feel-good afterglow that comes with the desire to help hapless folks displaced by conflict.
The bleeding heart rhetoric and the open arms are less visible now. In Canada, a nation that is known all over the world for making refugees feel welcome, the provinces of Saskatchewan and British Columbia have taken down all the ‘welcome aboard’ banners. Across the Atlantic, in Europe, leaders like Angela Merkel seem headed for some serious egg on their faces, their electorate now clamoring to shut down the borders.
I am sure that the surviving members of little Aylan Kurdi’s family are permanently scarred with the memories of his little red shoes bobbing up and down in rhythm with the surf. His Ummah died with him that night but his Abee survived the capsizing. To him, it all must seem like a tragic a waste – they may not have been admitted anyway.
Getting back to the podcast, the host had a panel bristling with distinguished experts from the fields of homeland security and anti-terrorism who were debating on Obama’s intentions of bringing in 10000 Syrian.
There was a state Governor who was also on a US governmental panel for homeland security. He was generally opposed to giving refuge to the displaced Syrians. Then there were a couple of folks from opposite sides of the asylum debate – a right-wing outfit called Center for Immigration Studies which vehemently opposes admitting even one refugee and the other – a pro-refugee think tank named Migration Policy Institute.
One of the so-called experts in the panel was Michael Leiter, former Director of the National Counter-Terrorism Center. ‘He oversaw US counter-terrorism for years’, said the host. Leiter seemed quite convinced that all the tools were in place to adequately detect an ISIS mass murderer among the incoming refugees. He obviously hasn’t heard of folks like my colleague, Akhtar and it was almost comical, listening to him speak about being able to screen and vet people he so seemed to know very little about.
On the face of it, the ‘tools’ that Leiter referred to, do seem to be in place in the US. Here is how strict a refugee vetting process in America is ……..
It begins with the refugee somehow managing to reach one of the regional offices of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). If the asylum seeker fits the 1951 Refugee Convention definition of a refugee, he is referred by the UNHCR for resettlement in America. So far the UNHCR has referred 20,000 Syrians to the US, of whom 2100 have been admitted since 2011, when the Syrian uprising began.
The US State Department(DS) decides which of the referred cases they’re willing to consider for settlement. After a case is chosen, the refugee and his family go through five layers of screening, starting with the DS itself. If all goes well, his case is handed over to the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security(DHS), after the DS is done with him. The DHS conducts it’s screening with the help of the Department of Defense(DOD) databases. The final vetting is by National Counter-Terrorism Center (the joint that Leiter headed). I understand that for Syrian refugees, there is an added layer of screening, known as the ‘Syria Enhanced Review Process’. All of these screenings happen before a refugee sets foot inside the United States.
While the above screenings play out, usually around 3 years have passed. In the end the refugee finally gets the chance to sit down to a face-to-face interview with a DHS Security Officer, the most crucial step in the whole process. Overall, start to finish, the failure rate is 90%, ie: nine out of ten applicants are refused.
Most often refugees arrive with only their clothes on their backs, with no papers and no identification, leaving behind a war-torn and devastated region that can provide no records, no real screening. Then what are all these American agencies really able to investigate? Really nothing. They must be accepting or rejecting applications merely on the basis of the asylum seeker’s story.
In reality the screening process is like a scene from The Keystone Cops – ‘Shia? He is persecuted. Let him in. Sunni? He is ISIL. Throw him out on his ass’. One commentator even likened the US Government’s refugee screening process to the story of the drunk who lost his keys….
A drunk loses his car keys coming out of the bar in the dark and begins searching for them under the street light. When the doorman at the pub asks him why he is looking specifically there, he says,’ hey, the light is better here’.
The fact is that the US Security agencies have no clue about who those guys coming in really are. In modern societies like America or Canada, a person leaves an ‘electronic trail’ behind him as he progresses through life – electronically recorded birth certificates, drivers licenses, property deeds, automobiles, marriage licenses, degrees, credit rating, likes, dislikes, shopping preferences, social media activity – he leaves behind, a unique signature. But war torn Iraq or Syria, nations that, even in peace time, have been medieval in their systems of governance – what trail can be picked up there?
There is of course another statistic – the number of terrorist acts actually committed by refugees, inside the mainland US since after 9/11. Katherine Newland of the US Migration Policy Institute confirms that, out a total of 784,000 refugees admitted into the US, there have been only 3 arrests on charges of terrorism. Two were Iraqi refugees arrested in Bowling Green, Kentucky in 2011, on suspicion of plotting to send weapons to insurgents to kill American soldiers abroad. The third was an Uzbek refugee who was arrested in 2013 in Boise, Idaho, accused of conspiring to support a terrorist organization, gathering explosive materials, and plotting to carry out an attack on U.S. soil.
(Note: Tamerlan and Dzokhar Tsarnaev, the Boston Marathon bombers, were little kids when they first settled in the US and therefore fall under the category of ‘home-grown terrorists’. For the context of this blog piece, we shall not open that particular can of worms. )
I disagree with Newland’s argument entirely. An iceberg only shows it’s tip. There could be hundred sleepers out there, already in America, who haven’t been caught yet. I am absolutely certain that by admitting more refugees, the US is going to heighten unwanted risk.
Sure, the US is directly responsible for the mess in the Middle East and has a moral obligation. America has dropped bombs and pulverized whole nations and then accepted refugees from them. At the end of the Vietnam War, it took in 1,740,000 Vietnamese refugees. There have been 120,000 Iraqis and counting, since the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
But those were a different era and trying to draw a parallel with today’s security situation could be a fatal mistake. Osama Bin Laden was a kindergarten teacher as compared to Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi. Today’s refugee is a human being filled with a lot of resentment and admitting folks like him in droves, given the obvious difficulties in accurate screening, could be a serious error of judgement.
The other day, at the lunch table, Akhtar came in and chucked a small rust colored card on my lap. “Look what you can get done in Pakistan, sitting right here,” he said with a smirk. It was a drivers license issued at Lahore, Pakistan, on October 29, 2015, to one Sheena Mirza, daughter of Akhtar Mirza, resident of Satto Katla, Lahore.
I know Sheena. She is 10 and hasn’t stepped outside Canada – ever.