Nationality, Statelessness and the Case of Deepan Budlakoti

By Alex Neve, Amnesty International Canada’s Secretary General. Follow Alex on Twitter @AlexNeveAmnesty.

Most of us never give it a second thought; our nationality.  We were born with it or may have gained a second or third nationality by moving to another country, through our ancestry or by marriage.  We are usually proud of it.  We enjoy, need and may boast about it when we travel.  But we don’t often think about what it would be like not to have it or to lose it.

Nationality is fundamental. It provides our identity in both a legal and cultural sense.  It is also the source of so many other rights: to vote, to participate and serve in government, to travel freely; and to be able to access education, medical care and employment. It establishes that there is a government to whom we can turn for support and protection.  It is essential.  That is why the right to a nationality is enshrined in article 15 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

But around the world at least ten million people have no nationality and are instead stateless.  Statelessness is, in many respects, a hidden human rights abuse.  It is hidden by its very definition; as its victims lack the full legal protection of a state, are more vulnerable to exploitation and discrimination, and very often need to live in secrecy and silence.

That is why the UNHCR has launched a new global campaign to end statelessness within the next ten years. The campaign has a hashtag that powerfully captures what is at stake: #IBELONG.

So what of Canada?

Concerns about Canadian laws, policies or decisions making people stateless have not been widespread by any measure.

But a current case has starkly demonstrated that it can and does happen here.  The case of Deepan Budlakoti highlights not only that there is statelessness in Canada but that government decisions can and do make it happen.  Particularly troubling in Deepan’s case is the determined refusal of the Canadian government to take the steps to ensure his statelessness comes to an end and that he is able to enjoy his right to a nationality.

Deepan’s story is unique, but that does not make the human rights implications any less compelling.  His parents were Indian nationals living in Canada at the time of his birth back in 1989.  (They gained Canadian nationality later.)  They had been employed by an Indian diplomat in Ottawa; but Deepan and his family assert they were no longer in the diplomat’s employ when he was born.  That is a key consideration.  Under Canadian law babies born in Canada are recognized as citizens, even if their parents are not Canadian.  But one exception is children born in Canada to parents with diplomatic status. 

Deepan Budlakoti grew up Canadian, taking his Canadian status as a given.  At one point, after she had gained Canadian citizenship, his mother listed Deepan on her Canadian passport.  When he was fourteen he obtained his own Canadian passport, relying on his Canadian birth certificate. 

But he has had troubles.  He had conflict with his family while growing up and was in the care of Children’s Aid for a while. He has firearms and drug trafficking convictions and has served his time for those offences, a three year sentence.

Following his criminal convictions, Canadian officials decided they had made a mistake and determined that Deepan Budlakoti is not a Canadian citizen after all, earlier passports notwithstanding.  They disputed the assertion that his parents were no longer diplomatic employees when he was born, rejecting evidence from the diplomat himself that they had left his employ before the birth.  

It doesn’t end there though. India refuses to recognize Deepan as an Indian national.  He is, therefore, currently stateless.  Whatever the final outcome is in court battles about whether Deepan’s parents were or were not in diplomatic employ when he was born, the uncontroverted truth is this: he lives in Canada; and has lived in Canada his entire life.  All other members of his family have Canadian citizenship.  In fact, Canada recognized him as a citizen for many years.

Stateless, Deepan is now unable to obtain a passport, meaning travel is impossible.  He is also currently embroiled in a legal challenge to obtain medical coverage through OHIP, despite having lived in Ontario his whole life.  The effects of statelessness – of exclusion, of a denial of other rights, of being forced to live in the shadows – are starting to take their toll.

This is not just about bureaucracy, paperwork and Canadian laws.  It is above all a human rights issue. There is an international obligation to prevent and reduce statelessness. In fact, Canada has been a party to the UN Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness since 1978 (notably India is not a party).   There is an international right to a nationality.  These are rights that should not be violated and rights that should be actively respected. 

Even though they both argue the contrary, either Canada or India could act to reduce statelessness and uphold the right to a nationality in this case.  But who has the stronger obligation and responsibility?  Is it the country where he has lived all of his life, or a country with which he has no meaningful connections?  Seems pretty clear, but Canada defiantly refuses to take the step of once again recognizing him as Canadian.  Instead he is it to be cast out.

Amnesty International has written twice to the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration about Deepan Budlakoti’s case.  All we were told in response is that the government is “committed to the fair and equitable application of Canada’s immigration laws.” Hard to see what is fair or equitable here?

Deepan is but one among the 10 million stateless people around the world whose plight has sparked the UNHCR’s #IBELONG campaign.  In that campaign the UN notes that a child is born stateless somewhere in the world every ten minutes.  Surely Canada can take the right step – the ‘human rights’ step – and turn back statelessness in at least this one case; by restoring a nationality to Deepan Budlakoti.

Note: Alex will be speaking about Deepan’s case at the event “Statelessness, Citizenship and Belonging” at Carleton University on March 12th at 6 pm.  Details available here.