Bashir Mohamed is an Edmonton-based writer.
I was born stateless – that is, legally without a country. So I was shocked and disturbed to learn the Conservative Party of Canada passed a motion last week to end birthright citizenship in Canada. This move is reckless and dangerous – and risks making the world’s most vulnerable people even more so.
I come from a Somali family. My family is from the north of the country, but my parents moved to Mogadishu for university and work. My dad had just started his engineering business while my mom was midway through her nursing training. Suddenly, war came to their neighbourhood, and they were forced to leave.
My mom told me that they initially resisted leaving. Somalia was their home, and they felt the fighting would pass. But the gunfire was closing in, and that meant that they had to escape. Their plan was to reach the port and catch a boat to Mombasa. My mom made it to the port but my dad didn’t; they were separated. My mom was with my sister and had no choice but to leave my father behind. She tied my sister to her back and boarded the boat.
Unfortunately, the boat was too heavy, and it sank in the Indian Ocean. They were lucky and were rescued by the Kenyan navy and sent to Mombasa. After three months of separation, my dad reunited with my mom and older sister. My dad passed away when I was 12 and never told me about what happened during those three months. Years later, I came across documents that said he was tortured and abused.
But the important thing was that they were finally together. My family registered as refugees with the United Nations. My mom worked in the market while my dad volunteered as an engineer for the UN and Red Cross. My family entered the camp in 1991, and in 1994, I was born.
The Kenyan government did not grant citizenship at birth, and the Somali government did not exist, so I was declared stateless – I legally belonged nowhere. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, stateless people “have difficulty accessing basic rights such as education, healthcare, employment and freedom of movement.”
Statelessness means being in limbo. I qualified for no passports and had no rights in Kenya nor any other country. This also meant that getting asylum would be difficult considering how stringent the screening process is in countries such as Canada. In 1993, Canada passed a law that said all applicants, including refugees, were required to have passports or “a satisfactory identity document.” However, the Canadian government realized its mistake, and in 1997, the “Undocumented Convention Refugees in Canada Class” was introduced.
We arrived in Edmonton in the winter of 1997. Despite having few rights in Canada, I was lucky in that I was able to go to school. Many other stateless people around the world are not given this opportunity. However, I still lacked mobility rights, and my status in Canada was precarious.
This changed in 2011 when I finally received my Canadian citizenship. It was a weird feeling walking into a room belonging to nowhere and then, suddenly, being recognized as part of the country I grew up in.
But there are many others who are not as lucky. In fact, the UN estimates that there are 10 million stateless people around the globe. These are people who legally belong nowhere and are among the most vulnerable people in the world. As an immigration lawyer noted at the Conservative Party resolution debate, this policy would, in effect, increase the number of stateless people in the world and create “stateless children.”
According to some Conservative Party delegates, the goal of the resolution was to target “birth tourism,” a phenomenon that they consider to be a “massive” problem. However, there are no statistics that supports that assertion. Statistics Canada notes that 0.08 per cent of births per year involved a parent that lived outside of Canada. To put it simply, “birth tourism” is a racist dog-whistle that has no basis in fact or reality.
And yet, delegates still passed the resolution. This saddens me, as someone who was once stateless. This vote represents a hard shift in our national discourse around immigration and diversity; a major political party openly endorsing dog-whistle policies to build their base.
We must understand this discourse in the context of the refugee crisis the world currently faces. Today, there are more refugees worldwide than there have been at any time since the Second World War, and that number is projected to rapidly increase as climate change creates even more environmental refugees.
The developing world has been bearing the brunt of this crisis. For context, the Canadian refugee flow last year was about 50,000 people; that’s just one day in Bangladesh during the height of the Rohingya refugee crisis.
Canada will no longer be immune to this humanitarian crisis. At a certain point, our relative geographical isolation will no longer shield us from inaction. Rather, we are at a critical crossroads. We can react as we’ve done historically, by turning people who need safety and asylum away. Or we can develop humane policies that will protect and welcome those fleeing disaster and conflict.
The resolution passed by the Conservative Party does the exact opposite.