Fears Vs. Facts in the Immigration Debate

Despite evidence to the contrary, many Canadians see Muslim newcomers as security threats. What will it take to change public perception?

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Canada has a reputation for being particularly welcoming to immigrants. According to a new poll by CROP-Radio Canada, this sentiment holds true when accepting immigrants and refugees for humanitarian reasons. But where it starts to break down is when religion is introduced as a factor.

The poll results suggest that Muslim immigrants are perceived as a security threat. University of Alberta immigration experts Sandra Bucerius and Reza Hasmath want to be clear on this: this perception is unfounded and breeds intolerance. And this divide between perception and reality is one they will continue to speak out about.

Bucerius cites her own research, working with police officers in communities where many Muslim refugees have resettled, and says that there are no greater problems than we experience with any other community. In fact, refugees commit fewer crimes on average than the rest of the Canadian population.

For this, Bucerius credits an already rigorous vetting protocol that every refugee applicant goes through to be accepted into the country. She believes that most Canadians aren’t familiar with the screening process, which begins with extensive interviews by the United Nations Refugee Agency, and continues with more interviews by Canadian visa officers, who are all looking for inconsistencies in the information applicants provide.

The officers also run biometric data, such as fingerprints and iris scans, through databases as a criminal background check, including the Canada Border Services Agency, Canadian Security Intelligence Service, RCMP and Interpol. Even after all this, border agents will review documentation again, and have the power to turn away any refugee who raises suspicion.

Hasmath echoes the sentiment that the vetting process is already extreme. Conservative leadership candidate Kellie Leitch’s proposed screening for anti-Canadian values has raised many eyebrows, especially now that she has released a sample of proposed questions. However, it’s undeniable that Canadians want a values screen. The CROP poll showed that 74% of participants were in favour. But Hasmath reiterates that compared to the system already in place, this would purely be for optics, to reassure the public.

The questions are so transparent that it would be easy to select the “correct” answers over the honest ones.

Alain Giguère, president of the CROP polling house, warns that the perception of threat, while not rooted in evidence, is still a danger. It can lead to intolerance, even though it’s irrational. He points to the sentiment of fear that Canadian heritage and identity is threatened by immigration, and underscores the fact that Muslims still represent only 3% of Canadians.

So what can be done to convince Canadians of the evidence? This is a transformation that can’t come from the top down; support networks are needed to build positive sentiment from the ground up, from regular members of our local communities. This includes support services for new immigrants that encourage integration so that the children of the next generation feel that they fit in.

Overall, Canadians believe that diversity makes us stronger. Focusing on the human aspect may help us welcome in our new neighbours, who desperately need a safe home.

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Karyn Ho is a science animator and engineer who thrives at the interface between science, engineering, medicine, and art. She earned her MScBMC (biomedical communications) and PhD (chemical engineering and biomedical engineering) at the University of Toronto. Karyn is passionate about using cutting edge discoveries to create dynamic stories as a way of supporting innovation, collaboration, education, and informed decision making. By translating knowledge into narratives, her vision is to captivate people, spark their curiosity, and motivate them to share what they learned.