A young man named Deepan Budlakoti remains caught in a legal limbo created and perpetuated by the Canadian government’s refusal to acknowledge his citizenship. He was born in Ottawa in 1987, and until 2009, he assumed that meant he was Canadian. At the age of 21 years old, and due to what are admittedly bad choices, he became entangled with the legal system, and his case was flagged as suspicious. An assessment of his background by immigration officials led them to conclude that he was not a citizen. He had been rendered stateless despite possessing a Canadian passport and an Ontario birth certificate.
The specific details of Budlakoti’s case are mired in controversy and repeatedly adjudicated in court. The controversy hinges on a teeny disputed fact: did his parents work for the Indian High Commission at the time of his birth? If they did, he is not Canadian; he is Indian. If they did not, he is Canadian. Budlakoti and his legal team insist on the former; the government on the latter.
The Canadian government insists that Budlakoti isn’t Canadian and that he is entitled to Indian citizenship. Or, at least, they will not consider his reapplication for Canadian citizenship until he has confirmed that he cannot access an alternative citizenship through an application to India. What is not in dispute is that Budlakoti believed himself to be Canadian, and all of his actions as an adult attest to this firm belief.
The choice to render Budlakoti stateless, and to insist on his statelessness, is pointless, and it is also cruel. Yet it remains a convention of international law that states are sovereign in nationality matters, even as the UN Conventions on Statelessness – Canada is a signatory of the first though not the second – articulate the importance of collaborating to reduce statelessness wherever possible. Reinstating Budlakoti’s citizenship is consistent with Canada’s obligations to reduce statelessness.
Why is rendering someone stateless cruel? No state is formally responsible for protecting the rights of those who are stateless, even if they reside on their territory. Stateless people in Canada are the subject of persistent rights violations and denials of services to which they ought to be entitled, including that they cannot legally work and therefore have no source of steady, reliable income; they struggle to find housing, health care, and education; they have no access to identity documents that might permit them to travel. Budlakoti faces all of these violations and denials. His ill-treatment while in detention is also well-known.
The Canadian government argues that before, Budlakoti must apply for citizenship in India. If that fails, he should re-apply to Canada for citizenship, which may or may not be granted. What the outcome of these processes would be is hard to predict. It is not clear what is gained by forcing Budlakoti through them other than requiring him to live in constant fear rather than enabling him to focus on his future.
Maybe the Canadian government is correct that Budlakoti was not a citizen of Canada at birth. But then, the error is the government’s: it granted him a wide range of documentation, leaving no ambiguity in Budlakoti’s mind about this status. The government failed to identify its errors; it did not allow Budlakoti to remedy the situation before it acted to render him stateless. It only became interested in the question of Budlakoti’s citizenship once he was charged with a crime. On this latter point, the government perpetuated the objectionable perspective that black and brown folks, especially of immigrant origin, are rightly deserving of our suspicion. This perspective was manifest in the ill-fated legislation that briefly permitted the revocation of citizenship of dual citizens convicted of terrorist activity. These errors must be remedied, and Canada should take responsibility for them by recognizing Budlakoti’s entitlement to Canadian citizenship.
What if Budlakoti were recognized as an Indian citizen, as the Canadian government insists he should be, despite the Indian government’s statement to the contrary? Deportation to a country he has not lived in and whose languages he does not speak would be the outcome. Deportation is grave harm, which in Budlakoti’s case, would force separation from the only country he has ever known, and the friend and familial relations he has here. The harm of deportation is generally more substantial for individuals who have been away from their countries of origin for a long time; if they have lived away from their entire lives, the harm is incalculable. Long-term residence generates a moral right to stay. If Budlakoti were admitted to Indian citizenship, the damage caused by deporting him would remain.
In demanding that Budlakoti applies for Indian citizenship and, if denied, re-apply for Canadian citizenship, Canada perpetuates statelessness in contravention of international law. It is heaping additional punishment on a young man who made mistakes, denying him the opportunity to press on with his life after having paid the penalty for them. And it is failing to live up to the democratic principles central to Canada’s success, including a commitment to the rule of law, equal treatment, and political inclusion. Canada can and should re-instate Budlakoti’s citizenship.