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The Privilege of My Canadian Passport Weighs Heavy As the Refugee Crisis Unfolds

A rally in solidarity with the plight of refugees in Amsterdam on September 5, 2015. Image by author.

A rally in solidarity with the plight of refugees in Amsterdam on September 5, 2015. Image by author.

I'm an Iranian-Canadian, currently a resident of the Netherlands. I'm sitting in my apartment in Amsterdam, staring at my Canadian passport. There are many stamps in there, because this passport is accepted without much trouble in much of the world. My Dutch residency card is next to my passport. Why do I, above anyone else, deserve these documents that give me the freedom to roam and live where I choose?

Well, it starts with my father's application to become a Canadian resident in 1985, while still living in Iran. He had no immediate family in Canada. He was not particularly financially competitive, nor was he in a dire political bind. The paperwork went through fairly smoothly. By 1988 my father had secured a residency visa for himself, my mother, and my sister. They made the move in early 1989, a few months before I was born. The paperwork quickly went through, so by the time I turned three, the rest of my family were naturalized Canadian citizens alongside me, a born Canadian.

Tima Kurdi, the aunt of Alan Kurdi, whose lifeless body washed ashore on a beach in Turkey, applied for her elder brother's family to seek asylum in Canada in 2015. She filled out all the necessary paperwork. She even assembled a team of people to pledge to the Canadian government they would support the Kurdi family when they moved.

Tima only had money to sponsor one brother at a time. So instead, she wrote a letter to Immigration Minister Chris Alexander asking to help Alan's family. Speaking on Vancouver morning drive-in radio, opposition Member of Parliament Fin Donnelly explained tha tin March 2015 he had hand-delivered the letter from Tima, his constituent, to Alexander  but received no response.

Also read: Alan Kurdi's Death Forces Canada to Confront Its Commitment to Helping Syrian Refugees

I can't help but think what bureaucrat pushing my father's application through to the accepted pile in the 80s is responsible for the comfortable, privileged, mobile life I now lead. I have unfettered access to most countries in the world right now. In fact, I left a comfortable and secure life in Canada to start another comfortable, secure life in the Netherlands.

I like to think of this as the “passport privilege” I have attained through a combination of factors wholly outside of my control, or the merit of myself or my family. My passport privilege is the product of an open immigration policy initiated by Lester B. Pearson, and later carried out by Pierre Elliot Trudeau—two Canadian Prime Ministers that cemented Canada's position as humanitarian leaders. That policy, those leaders, and the bureaucrat that coincidentally thought my father's paperwork was acceptable within these policies have profoundly shaped the trajectory of my life.

For the Kurdi family, however, the specifics go like this. An asylum application was delivered into the hands of a Minister of Citizenship and Immigration,found its way eventually to a bureaucrat who reviewed it in light of current policy, and issued the decisive No. The current immigration policy has reined in the “openness” that began in the 80s, and are currently adhering to strict scales of value depending on skills and the likelihood of the immigrants staying in Canada after obtaining that privileged passport. Those bureaucrats pushing applications through also have more authority to approve or refuse applications in light of whether they feel like the applicant will leave once they receive that golden ticket (a development more formally known as the Strengthening Canadian Citizenship Act, or Bill C-24).

In the aftermath of the Kurdi family's tragedy, the Canadian Prime Minister stated that the Canadian government was leading in the world as a safe haven for immigrants and refugees, admitting more refugees per capita than anywhere else in the world. This was an outright lie: according to the United Nations, Canada is not even in the top 10 countries taking in refugees.

The fact that the bureaucrat who reviewed the Kurdi application refused it speaks to a tragedy we are seeing unfold continually before our eyes. It is a crisis that rests on pieces of paper handled by bureaucrats carrying out policies administered largely by men who have never understood the weight of that privileged passport.

Like many of the rest of us, I sit here feeling helpless. Comfortable, and assured about our place and our ability to move around in the world. Not because we deserve it more, but purely out of circumstances that include policies, timing, and even socio-economic status.

There are many different organizations we can support, and there are many people making a difference in the middle of this. I encourage all of you to look and support these causes. But I also want us to question the system as a whole, the notion of movement, and the freedoms and privilege associated with them. Is this really the way the world should be ordered?

Read more of our special coverage: Streams of Refugees Seek Sanctuary in Europe

  • Siloo Kapadia

    AND, unlike those poor Americano slobs to the south of Canada, you DON’T have to worry about filing taxes to your government each year, you DON’T have to worry about your application to open a local bank account being rejected only because of cumbersome FATCA rules, you DON’T have to worry about being arrested upon your return to Canada only because you didn’t file taxes each year, even though you didn’t earn enough to pay taxes, etc.

    We, as green card holders of USA had this problem once we finally got out of that country (more like PRISON), but we were able to renounce those cards. Now USA, bastion of freedom that it is, is saying that when my sons want to renounce their USA citizenship, they need to pay about $2500 EACH for the privilege!!! I told them that would be a small price to pay for their freedom.

    Too many Canadians think they would be better off in USA but believe me, YOU ARE NOT! So if anyone is thinking of going to USA, think again.

  • Siloo Kapadia

    Be grateful you are a Canadian. It could have been MUCH WORSE! You could have been …. an Americano!

    Unlike those poor Americano slobs to the south of Canada, you DON’T have to worry about filing taxes to your government each year, you DON’T have to worry about your application to open a local bank account being rejected only because of cumbersome FATCA rules, you DON’T have to worry about being arrested upon your return to Canada only because you didn’t file taxes each year, even though you didn’t earn enough to pay taxes, etc.

    We, as green card holders of USA had this problem once we finally got out of that country (more like PRISON), but we were able to renounce those cards. Now USA, bastion of freedom that it is, is saying that when my sons want to renounce their USA citizenship, they need to pay about $2500 EACH for the privilege!!! I told them that would be a small price to pay for their freedom.

    Too many Canadians think they would be better off in USA but believe me, YOU ARE NOT! So if anyone is thinking of going to USA, think again.

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