Pandemic likely to drive a surge in immigration fraud, border agency warns

·5 min read
Migrants stack their luggage outside a makeshift police station after crossing illegally into Canada at the end of Roxham Road in Champlain, N.Y. on Aug. 7, 2017. A CBSA report says the pandemic is expected to drive a surge in immigration fraud and human smuggling. (Charles Krupa/The Associated Press - image credit)
Migrants stack their luggage outside a makeshift police station after crossing illegally into Canada at the end of Roxham Road in Champlain, N.Y. on Aug. 7, 2017. A CBSA report says the pandemic is expected to drive a surge in immigration fraud and human smuggling. (Charles Krupa/The Associated Press - image credit)

The COVID-19 pandemic is likely to drive an increase in immigration fraud and human smuggling as desperate migrants try to get into Canada, says a strategic intelligence report prepared by the Canada Border Service Agency.

The report warns that economic downturns and increased poverty abroad caused by the pandemic will prompt more people to resort to irregular methods to come to Canada.

"With more people looking to immigrate, there is likely to be an increase in fraud in all immigration streams via the use of fraudulent supporting documentation to bolster visa or permanent resident applications, fraudulently acquired travel documents to be able to board flights to Canada and misrepresentation," says the report, dated June 2020.

"It is also likely that we may see more downstream immigration fraud once individuals are in Canada, such as an increase in workers without authorization, marriages of convenience, or the use of unscrupulous agents to assist individuals in regularizing their temporary status into permanent residence."

The pandemic is likely to increase both the number of people seeking refugee status in Canada and the number of economic migrants pretending to be refugees, the report warns.

Migrants who tried to flee to Europe travel in a dinghy after they were stopped by the Libyan coast guard on September 29, 2015. The region is a major hub for human trafficking.
Migrants who tried to flee to Europe travel in a dinghy after they were stopped by the Libyan coast guard on September 29, 2015. The region is a major hub for human trafficking.(Ismail Zitouny/Reuters)

It's also expected to trigger a rise in human smuggling, the report predicts.

"With migration pathways likely reduced globally either as a result of restrictive socio-economic conditions or harsh immigration policies, desperation will likely see more migrants increasingly use the services of smuggling networks and more dangerous pathways, which is likely to increase migrant vulnerability and exploitation by traffickers or other criminal groups," the report says.

"Migrants who have the means will likely engage the services of smuggling networks, likely resulting in the use of more fraudulent and counterfeit travel documents, increased targeting of visa-exempt travel documents, and the use of new transit points and clandestine routes to facilitate the movement of people to Canada."

Poverty, corruption and inequality

Part of the problem, the report says, is how the pandemic is aggravating economic inequality around the world.

"Economic inequality is likely to exacerbate push factors such as corruption, unemployment, poverty, poor infrastructure, restrictive human rights and violent conflict," it reads. "These push factors and the desire to seek favorable socio-economic opportunities already drives a significant portion of irregular migration to Canada and consequences of the pandemic are likely to intensify this."

The report says Canada is one of the largest sources in the world for remittances — money sent back to home countries by people who come to Canada for work.

Judith Gadbois-St. Cyr, spokesperson for the CBSA, said the report is the most recent assessment by the agency. She said the pandemic has affected the number of people attempting to get into Canada through fraud or human smuggling.

"Irregular migration is impacted by the pandemic travel restrictions in place in Canada and around the world," she said in a written statement. "At this time, asylum numbers remain lower than those experienced before COVID-19. The CBSA continues to assess these trends and the broader impacts of COVID-19 as it plans for a post pandemic environment."

She said the agency conducts training in fraud detection techniques and immigration fraud involving "consultants, representatives and organizers remains a top investigative priority."

Vancouver immigration lawyer Richard Kurland says the pandemic has destroyed the economies of some countries, making Canada an attractive destination.
Vancouver immigration lawyer Richard Kurland says the pandemic has destroyed the economies of some countries, making Canada an attractive destination.(Chris Corday/CBC)

Vancouver immigration lawyer Richard Kurland, who obtained the report under the Access to Information Act, said the report and its warning about fake documents could account for some of the delays applicants for work or study permits have been experiencing.

"That explains why in many key visa processing centres around the world, more scrutiny is given to applications to come to Canada, which takes more time to process, resulting in lengthier processing times because of COVID and its impact on immigration enforcement," he said.

"So, if you're delayed for a visa service, that helps explain why."

Kurland said the pandemic has destroyed the economies of some countries — at least temporarily — and coming to Canada allows migrants to stay healthier, work legally or illegally and send money back home.

"CBSA hit the nail on the head when it comes to a COVID warning for Canadian immigration authorities," he said.

Janet Dench of the Canadian Council for Refugees said the CBSA report paints a bleak picture.
Janet Dench of the Canadian Council for Refugees said the CBSA report paints a bleak picture.(CBC)

Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees, said the report paints a bleak picture of the situation. She said the report focuses more on how to enforce laws than on ways to help desperate migrants.

"It is really distressing how quickly the CBSA analyst goes to, 'People are going to be in dire situations, they're going to be fleeing human rights abuses, they're going to be facing humanitarian need, therefore we must be expecting more fraud and taking action against fraud rather than looking at options that are available to them such as being more understanding of why people are forced to turn to smugglers because they are facing dire humanitarian need,'" she said.

Dench said a few urgent refugee cases have been permitted to come to Canada during the pandemic but her group would like to see the Canadian government again allow the arrival of refugees who have been approved to resettle in Canada.

Elizabeth Thompson can be reached at elizabeth.thompson@cbc.ca

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