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OPINION | Stopping refugees from renewing travel documents amounts to discrimination

Why is Passports Canada creating a two-tier system when it comes to renewing passports?

by Ray Mwareya

Photo of Canadian passport
Photo of Canadian passport

At the breakout of the COVID-19 pandemic, Passport Canada suspended its services. Physical interactions, it was feared, were fueling infections. Canadians could consequently only obtain passports for urgent reasons. This was perfectly reasonable. 

In July, Passport Canada resumed the processing of passports – but with a caveat. Everyone could get a new passport or renew their old one except former refugees: those who’d been granted protection in Canada and are currently waiting to become citizens. 

“You can only get travel document services in Canada if you have a valid reason to travel urgently,” according to the Passports Canada website. 

This is unfair and discriminatory.  

My view is this creates two classes of Canadian residents: those who are citizens and allowed to take a holiday or work trip abroad, and those who are restricted from traveling out of Canada for a while. 

I’m a former refugee in Canada and now a permanent resident. I feel harshly impacted by this. In the absence of our national passports (which the Canadian government keeps in line with refugee processing rules), we depend on the blue UN 1954 Convention Refugee Travel Document issued/ renewed by Passport Canada to travel overseas whether for work, holiday, or humanitarian purposes.  

In December, I returned from a trip abroad and realized that my refugee travel document, which, again, is valid for only two years, is expiring this July. If by then we are still restricted from renewing our travel documents, I’m likely to miss overseas trips for marriage or work (and thus earnings). 

Of course, I must acknowledge the risks of travelling right now, particularly as new variants of COVID begin circulating. For this reason, it's a good thing that the federal government will enforce a more rigorous hotel quarantine arrangement than in the past, where travellers were simply allowed to go home and it was assumed they will obey the order to self-isolate.

As a writer, you must know reporting gigs abroad are a crucial source of earnings because the local media market in Canada is tiny compared to that of the USA or Europe. Additionally, our local media is institutionally problematic when it comes to onboarding new players, especially non-white name-sounding-writers of colour

So far, I haven't noticed significant financial support from the Canadian government for freelance journalists who need to travel abroad. The $595 million that the Feds promised in 2020 is geared towards domestic media companies and thus towards domestic coverage. My view is that a big chunk of money will go to big legacy media anyway. Simply put, us freelancers will have to continue self-funding our work and often necessary travels. 

Yes, vaccines are being rolled out. However, no one knows definitely when this pandemic will subside. Therefore, for us freelance journalists in Canada who are domestically unemployed, venturing abroad for reporter trips is critical to keep us rooted in the profession.  

Further, I feel demoralized when I do a small contrast.  Canada citizen passport-holders, especially the so-called ’snowbirds’ and our outed ministers, can vacation in the Caribbean and dodge the winter. Yet we, holders of expiring refugee travel documents, won’t be allowed the same privilege this time when our documents expire.   

No-fly lists 

Even before this restriction, the very human act of traveling in and out of Canada as a person of colour was already littered with systemic hindrances.  

For instance, according to Khadija Cajee, co-founder of the movement No Fly List Kids, up to 100,000 Canadians are affected by false-positive screenings under Canada’s Passenger Protect Program and routinely banned from taking flights. This is based on a list officially known as the Secure Air Travel Act List (SATAL).  

The goal of No Fly List Kids is for people who are falsely flagged on this list (adults and children) to have the means to have themselves removed. Canadian human rights lawyer Faisal Bhabha calls the list, “analogous to carding in the National Security context.” 

The list is also under fire from families of colour who say they have been wrongly flagged in the database simply because their names or surnames. 

As Khadija says: “Canadians with Arab or Arab-sounding names are disproportionately captured on this list. People from non-racialized backgrounds or uber privileged backgrounds can often go their whole lives without feeling this impact.” 

I’m still thankful 

I am aware that my predicament as a protected person inside Canada unable to renew their travel document is less dire compared to other refugees who are stuck abroad in overcrowded refugee camps.  

Still, if Passport Canada can resume processing passports for millions of Canadian citizens again, as a matter of equality, surely the same should be extended to us, permanent resident and former refugees, just like in the past. We live here and we pay our taxes here. We also need the right to be able to travel freely abroad for holiday or work. Not being able to renew our travel documents could devastate our careers and personal lives.   

Being frozen out of renewing travel documents sends out an impression that a certain class of people – in this case, refugees and former refugees – don’t matter.  

About the author: Ray Mwareya is a former refugee and freelance journalist in Ottawa. 

 


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Fernando Arce (Fernando Arce)
Etobicoke,Ontario
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About:

Fernando Arce is a freelance multimedia journalist based in Toronto and writes strictly from an anti-imperialist, anti-colonial stance. His work is devoted to amplifying the voices of the grassroots and working classes as well as those of Indigenous Peoples resisting colonialism around the world. He sits on the Media Co-op's Board of Directors as an Editorial Representative and has been a member of the New Canadian Media-Canadian Association of Journalists collective since February 2021. He has a BA in Political Science from York University and an MA in Journalism from Western University. His latest work can be found at www.fernandoarce.ca. He blogs at www.fernandounfiltered.wordpress.com.

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