How smugglers and scammers target refugees desperate to get to Canada
In a world flooded with millions of displaced people, Canada has become the dream destination—and a cash cow for those capitalizing on their hopes
By Adnan R. Khan
In Istanbul, Turkey, Ahmed Stanekzai (not his real name) looks out over the Marmara sea from his apartment in Istanbul. Since January, Stanekzai has been trying to come to Canada, something he has dreamed about since seeing the video of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau welcoming refugees at Toronto's Pearson International airport in December 2015. The demand to come to Canada has spiked in recent years, far outpacing the Liberal government's refugee quotas. The winners are smugglers and scammers who cash in on people's dreams.
Seated on a ratty grey couch in his apartment in Istanbul’s Yedikule district, his wife pouring sweet green tea, Ahmed Stanekzai talks about Canada.
“Have you been there?” he asks, holding up his cellphone, displaying a tourist photo of Niagara Falls. Without waiting for a reply, the 23-year old Afghan refugee swipes to the next image, an idyllic scene from Algonquin Park in autumn, the rainbow-coloured hills reflected in near-perfect symmetry on a glassy lake. His excitement spikes.
“This is fake, right?” he asks. “No place in the world can look so beautiful.”
He taps a few more times on the screen and pulls up the video of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau greeting refugees at Pearson International Airport in Toronto in December 2015. Everyone he knows has that video on their cellphone, he says. It’s become the baseline for how refugees think they will be treated in Canada.
In that one simple scene, with its hugs and handshakes, more photo op than moral statement, Stanekzai has found the one thing he’s been missing since he was a troubled teenager in Afghanistan: hope.
“I’ve never seen anyone treat refugees like that,” he says, asking that his real name not be used because he is still considering moving illegally out of Turkey. “When I saw it for the first time, I imagined it was my son receiving gifts, that it was my wife shaking the hand of Canada’s Prime Minister. I imagined myself standing back and just smiling at this new life opening up to us.”
That image has remained embedded in Stanekzai’s imagination, despite all the disappointment and acts of unkindness he has experienced as a refugee. For him, like hundreds of thousands of refugees around the world, Canada is seen as a place of refuge, free from the kind of toxic fear of foreigners infecting other Western nations.
His belief is not altogether unfounded. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), Canada now takes in more refugees and immigrants per capita than any other G7 nation. In addition, a recent study commissioned by the IOM and funded by the government of Canada found the number of people who want to go to Canada is on the rise.
But the study’s authors also uncovered some worrying side effects. Canada’s natural defences—oceans to the east and west, a frozen expanse to the north and a neighbour to the south that boasts some of the strictest border controls in the world—protect it from the kind of illegal immigration European nations have experienced. Consequently, Canada has become the “crown jewel” of smuggling destinations, according to the researchers. In an increasingly competitive environment, “smugglers who can get a refugee to Canada consider it a major accomplishment,” says Mehrdad Pourzakikhani, a researcher at Samuel Hall, the independent think tank that was hired to conduct the IOM study. “The demand for Canada is growing.”
In a world that has largely turned its back on millions of refugees, he adds, a new generation of smugglers and con artists is emerging. And Canada is fast becoming their cash cow.
For years, migration experts warned this would happen. Metin Corabatir, president of the Research Center on Asylum and Migration in Ankara, Turkey’s capital, says he has witnessed an alarming rise in the number of refugees defrauded with promises of a new life in Canada. “Irregular migration is the primary way of exploiting humans in our age,” he says of the millions who turn to smugglers for a path to safety. “The whole [refugee] system, globally, is broken. And it’s the smugglers and their networks who are the beneficiaries.”
Nailing down the exact size of the underground human trafficking economy is difficult, Corabatir says, but it’s so big that arms traffickers and drug smugglers are getting in on the business. In Istanbul’s Kumkapi district, travel agents now quietly offer “immigration services” to anyone willing to pay a fee, ranging from a few hundred dollars for guiding a person through online visa applications to tens of thousands for connections to smugglers.
According to one who spoke to Maclean’s, the agents refer would-be clients to smugglers who specialize in certain countries. Canada, he says, speaking on the condition of anonymity, is on the top of everyone’s list, but it’s expensive. “You can pay US$20,000 to buy a fake Canadian passport and flight tickets that will take you from Turkey through multiple destinations before arriving in Canada,” he says. “China is a popular route because the passport checks for transit passengers are not very good. Others claim they can get you there for less, but they are untrustworthy.”
Actual refuge in Canada is rarely delivered, the agent adds. Most people are caught with badly forged documents before they get anywhere near Canada, according to Corabatir. He blames this exploitation on the relatively limited refugee spaces Canada offers. “The numbers are just not enough,” he says of the 40,000 refugees Canada plans to resettle this year. “There are nearly three million registered refugees in Turkey alone and probably a million or more unregistered. These people are becoming more desperate every day.”
As of June 22 this year, 2,848 migrant deaths were recorded worldwide, the vast majority by drowning in the Mediterranean Sea, according to the IOM’s Missing Migrants Project, including, for the first time since the IOM began keeping these records, a death on the U.S.-Canada border. In 2015, during what many were calling the worst migration crisis since the Second World War, the number of deaths was virtually identical.
Still, that doesn’t stop people like Stanekzai from trying, against near-impossible odds. Glued to his cellphone with his four-year-old stepson crawling over his shoulder, he clicks on another link he has saved in his bookmarks. It takes him to ItsCanadaTime.com, the website of a company offering migrants “professional” visa services. Its homepage describes Canada’s Express Entry program, a skilled worker immigration stream. Looking over the site, Stanekzai says he was drawn in by the promise of a “professional assessment” by “authorized representatives.” The company promised him it would “make sure that you get to Canada!”
In Istanbul, Turkey, Ahmed Stanekzai (not his real name) scrolls through the website of It's Canada Time, an "immigration consultancy" that offers prospective clients a chance to immigrate to Canada. Refugees are being exploited by shady "immigration consultants" who take advantage of the Liberal government's promise to take in the world's desperate. The demand to come to Canada has spiked in recent years, far outpacing the Liberal government's refugee quotas. The winners are smugglers and scammers who cash in on people's dreams. (Photograph by Adnan R. Khan)
He applied in early January and, after paying an initial US$400 fee and answering some questions over the telephone, he received an email from It’s Canada Time. “Congratulations!!! It is our pleasure to inform that you successfully passed the Assessment… You fit perfectly in being a candidate for a Permanent Resident Visa in the Express Entry 2016 immigration program.” He was hooked. What Stanekzai didn’t realize was that he could have done a free assessment for the same program on the government’s immigration website. Entering his education level, work experience and language skills—the same information he had given to It’s Canada Time—the official response is straightforward: “Based on your answers, you do not appear to be eligible for Express Entry.”
But in January, convinced he was on the right track, Stanekzai didn’t flinch when he was told by It’s Canada Time that he needed to pay another US$3,500 for the “premium package,” which would not only help him with his paperwork but also assist him with settling into Canada. He begged and borrowed the money and sent it out in instalments, wire-transferred to South Africa.
“It’s funny,” he says. “While I was still paying them, they were calling me almost every day to tell me how happy they were I was working with them and that everything would work out fine. Then after I paid the full amount, they stopped calling.”
David Cohen, an immigration lawyer in Montreal, says he is hearing more and more about these kinds of cases. Shady immigration consultancies prey on a person’s desperation and ignorance, he says.
Stanekzai failed to notice that the It’s Canada Time website lists two office addresses—one in Toronto and the other, curiously, in the Seychelles. He also overlooked the obviously fishy nature of wiring money to South Africa for the services. “I feel stupid now,” he says, glancing sheepishly at his wife. “But at first it all looked good. The It’s Canada Time Facebook page had messages from people who said it worked.”
Reached by Maclean’s, immigration “agents” with It’s Canada Time admitted they were not Registered Canadian Immigration Consultants (RCICs), who, under Canadian law, are required to be licensed before they can give immigration advice for a fee. They insisted, however, that RCICs were employed by the company and promised one would be in touch. No one was.
The immigration consultancy industry is booming at a time when record numbers of people are vying for a place in Canada. But at the same time, it’s in chaos. An oversight body, the ICCRC-CRCIC, approved by the government in 2011, was determined in a report published in mid-June by a parliamentary committee to be failing in everything from complaints resolution to tackling unauthorized consultants. According to Ravi Jain, a member of the immigration law section of the Canadian Bar Association who testified before the committee, the number of registered Canadian immigration consultants has grown from 1,600 in 2010 to more than 3,600 in 2017, but at the same time, the industry has experienced a parallel spike in complaints—“almost two complaints for every two members,” he says.
Repeated calls and emails requesting comment from the ICCRC-CRCIC went unanswered, but in a June 19 press release, Chris Daw, chair of the board of directors, responded to the parliamentary committee report with a promise to review its findings and “strengthen the council as a regulator.”
Cohen stresses how important it is for Ottawa to get a handle on an industry so perfectly suited for exploitative practices. Cases like Stanekzai’s are particularly tricky, he says, because the exploitation happens overseas, outside the reach of Canadian law.
But the Canadian government bears some responsibility for the pull factors it has created. In January, for instance, Trudeau tweeted in response to a proposed U.S travel ban: “To those fleeing persecution, terror & war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith. Diversity is our strength #WelcomeToCanada.”
“Clearly Canadians like the headlines, from an ego point of view,” Cohen says. “And compared to other countries, we are more welcoming. But how do you get here?”
In an email statement, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada emphasized that Canada continues to set records with its refugee inflows. “In 2017, we will welcome one of the highest numbers of refugees and protected persons in Canadian history,” the statement reads. “Planned admissions for resettled refugees in 2017 is 25,000, which is double those established for 2015 and in preceding years.”
The problem, according to Corabatir and others, is that Canada’s asylum system doesn’t put a dent in the illegal movement of people. The vast majority of newcomers who enter Canada do so through regular migration channels—skilled workers, for instance, who are cherry-picked to fill Canada’s economic needs. “What a lot of Canadians don’t realize is that our immigration and refugee policy is not based on humanitarianism,” says Mitchell Goldberg, an immigration lawyer in Montreal and a member of the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers. “No doubt the Liberal government has good instincts when it comes to refugees and immigrants. But let’s remember: most of the world’s refugees are housed by poorer countries bordering areas with large migration outflows, like Lebanon and Turkey.”
In those places, way stations for people like Stanekzai, Canada is both a dream and a nightmare. With his wife now pregnant with their second child, and having given up hope that It’s Canada Time will help him or refund his money, he is now looking at a new option: the dangerous overland journey to Greece hidden in the back of a delivery truck. As of late July, he had managed to put together $2,400 for the trip. He’d hoped for more, enough to buy his family a place on a smuggling boat to Italy. Both options come with risks: neither he, his wife nor his son can swim. And locked in a truck at the height of summer, when daytime temperatures regularly push 40° C, is terrifying in its own right. Stanekzai has heard about the migrants who died in Texas on July 23, succumbing to the heat in the back of a truck. “But what choice do I have?” he says. “I spent so much time and money trying to go to Canada. I have nothing left. We have to go somewhere.”
Canada’s reputation as a caring place for the world’s displaced may have raised its profile and made Canadians feel good about themselves, but the costs are mounting.