Police and anti-gang advocates are once again warning international students to be on the lookout for criminals looking to recruit them into the Lower Mainland gang conflict.
But while past warnings have been centred in Surrey and other parts of Metro Vancouver, this time the focus is shifting to Fraser Valley communities like Abbotsford.
Anti-gang group Wake Up Surrey says it met with Abbotsford Police Chief Mike Serr Wednesday to inform him of several tips the group has received of international students being lured into drug dealing and other gang activity in the city.
According to the group, Serr confirmed they are investigating recruitment efforts at secondary schools and the University of the Fraser Valley.
Founding member Gurpreet Singh Sahota says gangs are preying on the vulnerability of international students, who have less money and connections when studying far away from their families.
“Drug dealers are always looking for the most vulnerable people,” he said.
“They’re even trying very hard to target elementary school students. … They’re targeting everyone.”
Abbotsford Police spokesperson Sgt. Judy Bird confirmed the recruitment of international students is an ongoing concern, and that the criminals’ methods are getting more brazen.
“That includes approaching people in parking lots, intersections, and schools,” she said, while urging students, parents and families to reach out to police and their partners when they encounter that activity.
The Combined Forces Special Enforcement Unit, the province’s integrated anti-gang agency, says youth and student recruitment is also on their radar.
“This is why we partner extensively with our community, our law enforcement partners, and we’ve done a lot of work with our local schools to educate students about the dangers of gang life,” CFSEU spokesperson Sgt. Brenda Winpenny said.
Police say the main challenge is getting that message out to as many people as possible.
“As much as we emphasize parents getting involved, we also want to make sure our community is involved as a whole when it comes to stopping the violence,” Bird said.
Beyond the risk of violence and even death to those caught up in the drug trade or gang life, international students also face the additional risk of being deported if caught by police.
Recently, three people were deported after being involved in two large brawls in Surrey, both of which were caught on video.
But immigration lawyers like Richard Kurland say those students will often not face charges or any other consequences for their crimes when they return home — even if they’re convicted before being deported.
“What happens in Canada, as a crime, stays in Canada,” he said. “Only if there’s terrorism, hijacking, bigamy, would India get involved.”
Kurland says because international students are “ripe for plucking” by drug dealers and gangs, it’s up to those students to be wary of avoiding anything that could jeopardize their futures.
“Common sense is the best deterrent to stay away from gang and criminal activities,” he said.
“Doing bad things will close the door to Canada for you if you’re a foreign student.”
—With files from Sarah MacDonald