COVID-19 scrutiny has stopped some women headed to Canada to give birth, documents allege

While the article is unbalanced, only citing Jamie Liew who dismisses the importance of the issue and the data (Jamie and I continue our debate at Policy Options and elsewhere), good to know that officials are identifying women suspected of misrepresenting their purpose of travel.

While the ATIP under question pertains only to Abu Dhabi, would be interesting to have comparable reports from other main source countries of birth tourists particularly China.

As to the question of the numbers, have written extensively on the strengths and weaknesses of the CIHI numbers (far from perfect but more realistic than the StatsCan/vital stats dramatic understating).

2020 numbers, likely available mid-summer, will provide a good indication of the practice given that visitor visas have declined 96 percent post-COVID, in contrast to other temporary residents where the decline has been much less (international students: 32 percent, IMP and TFWP down by 14 percent, April to November 2020 compared to the same period in 2019).

IRCC work on linking health and immigration data does not appear to have advanced much given COVID-19:

Greater scrutiny of travellers, prompted by COVID-19, has yielded new instances of women from other countries coming to Canada with what officials say is an unspoken plan to deliver their baby here, documents obtained by the Star show.

Some observers have repeatedly cautioned that the practice controversially dubbed “birth tourism” — which is legal — is being overblown and that focus on it has been driven as much by racism as real concern.

The federal government, meanwhile, has said it is studying the issue in an effort to understand the scope of what is happening.

An August 2020 report, obtained through an access-to-information request, offers a look at some of the information the government is getting. 

It was prepared by Canadian government staff in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates. It says that over a two-week period in June, airline staff, with support from Canada Border Services Agency liaison officers, “intercepted” prior-to-boarding 19 foreign nationals from the Middle East, who were all carrying temporary resident visas, because they were suspected of misrepresenting the purpose of travel.

The report suggests new restrictive citizenship measures in the United States, falling oil prices and economic vulnerability due to the pandemic could be driving more pregnant women from the region to seek to give birth in Canada.

All babies born in Canada receive automatic Canadian citizenship.

Language in the government document states: “While birth tourism is not illegal in Canada, it can undermine Canadians’ confidence in (the government’s) management of migration and citizenship programs.”

Observers, however, say the trend has been exaggerated and that critics are unfairly demonizing non-resident mothers. They note that, generally speaking, many of the foreign women giving birth in Canada are, in fact, not “birth tourists” but international students, migrant workers, foreign government personnel, those seeking to become permanent residents, as well as Canadians living abroad who have chosen to return to Canada to give birth.

“There isn’t enough contextualized data out there to know why people are giving birth in Canada as foreign residents,” said Jamie Liew, a law professor at the University of Ottawa.

“It’s not clear to me that it’s people just floating in and floating out.”

Under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, foreign nationals cannot be prevented from travelling to Canada to give birth. They can be, however, if they lie about the purpose of travel on their temporary resident visa application.

For its part, the Trudeau government says it is trying to understand the extent of the practice and is in the middle of collecting better data, including how many non-resident mothers are short-term visitors who come to Canada to give birth then leave. A spokesperson for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada says the government’s analysis is expected sometime this year.

In some Canadian cities, unregulated for-profit businesses, including so-called “maternity hotels,” have emerged catering to non-resident expectant mothers.

In the Vancouver suburb of Richmond, B.C. — whose main hospital has seen the highest number of non-resident births in Canada outside Quebec, according to the federal government — the city council last year passed a motion urging Ottawa to end birthright citizenship altogether. Most non-resident mothers at that hospital list a permanent address in China, provincial records say.

There is wide discrepancy in the existing national data. The Canadian Institute for Health Information says the number of non-resident births in Canada (outside Quebec) has steadily climbed from 3,600 in 2017-18 to 4,400 in 2019-20, representing about one per cent of the 380,000 births in Canada each year. Data from Statistics Canada has previously shown that the number is only in the hundreds.

The report obtained by the Star says “COVID-19 travel restrictions have brought to light a number of birth-tourism related temporary resident visa applicants within IRCC Abu Dhabi’s caseload, as the restrictions have led to closer scrutiny of the purpose of travel at the time of boarding.”

According to the report, the purpose of travel most commonly cited at the time the 19 applied for their visas was “tourism” or “family visit.”

Five of the 19 travellers were women who had previously given birth in Canada and were travelling to give birth in Canada a second time. They were travelling with family members or other companions.

“Some foreign nationals are using their relationship to their children previously born in Canada to attempt to justify entry to Canada to give birth a second time,” the report states. Others cited medical needs of their Canadian-born child.

Ultimately, 18 of the 19 were not allowed to board and their visas were referred back to immigration offices in Abu Dhabi or Riyadh for review. The one traveller who was permitted to board was refused entry in Canada but eventually allowed in due, in part, to possible risk to her pregnancy.

The 18 who were denied boarding were allowed to make their case in writing in response to “procedural fairness letters.” Some acknowledged they had given birth in Canada on a previous trip but noted they had also visited family or done tourism.

“If a traveller visited family and also gave birth, it is harder to reach a finding of misrepresentation as the declared purpose of travel is not false, but incomplete,” the report says.

It is unclear how many of the 18, if any, were eventually allowed to travel to Canada.

The report noted that since the start of the pandemic travel restrictions, the Canadian immigration office in Abu Dhabi had received 30 online requests from individuals seeking an exemption to travel to Canada to allow them to give birth as a “medical procedure or treatment.” The requests for travel were all denied.

“Few, if any, of the above cases would have come to IRCC’s attention in the absence of the COVID-19 travel restrictions,” the report contends. “The considerable number of cases over a short period raises questions regarding the frequency with which residents of the Gulf region are travelling to Canada for birth tourism under normal circumstances, and remaining under the radar. Indeed, the present numbers might be even higher were it not for limited flight availability and hesitation among expecting parents to board a 14-hour flight during a pandemic.”

The report notes that the decision by the U.S. in early 2020 to stop issuing temporary visitor visas to foreign nationals believed to be travelling to the U.S. to give birth, along with increasing economic uncertainty in the region and falling oil prices “will increase push factors for birth tourism to Canada.”

Asked if the pattern cited in the summer report was continuing, a CBSA spokesperson said the agency does not comment on trends or fluctuations.

An IRCC spokesperson said in an email a person is not inadmissible nor can they be denied a visa solely on the grounds that they are pregnant or that they may give birth in Canada.

However, providing false information is considered misrepresentation and has “immigration consequences.”

“While these statistics indicate that birth tourism is not widespread, the Government of Canada recognizes the need to better understand the extent of this practice,” the email said.

Liew, the law professor, said she worries the government could be prematurely concluding that cases represent birth tourism or that birth tourism is on the rise.

“There is very little data out there that indicates this is a growing problem,” she said. “I would say it seems like a very benign problem in my estimation.”


About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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