‘Birth tourism’ might be down, but we still need to rein it in

The pandemic has made huge impacts on society, from supply-chain constraints to chronic shortages of labour. One of the most interesting, however, is something Canadians would rather not discuss: so-called birth tourism.

Birth tourism is the practice of non-Canadian women travelling here with the express purpose of giving birth to a baby, who automatically obtains Canadian citizenship. It’s a legal but unintended consequence of Canada’s longstanding policy of birthright citizenship, whereby citizenship is conferred on any child born on Canadian soil, no matter its parents.

Birthright citizenship is actually shrinking as a policy worldwide. European countries have virtually eliminated it, and Australia now requires that at least one parent be a citizen or permanent resident for the baby to obtain citizenship automatically.

Only about 30 countries still have a form of birthright citizenship, mainly in North and South America. Canada and the U.S. are the only wealthy Western countries to continue the practice. Former U.S. president Donald Trump promised to eliminate it, but the idea didn’t get anywhere. Birthright citizenship is protected by the U.S. Constitution.

There’s a downside to U.S. citizenship, especially for wealthy foreigners. Once you’re a citizen, you’re taxed on your global income, no matter where you live, a uniquely American policy that makes high-income individuals think twice. That leaves Canada as an attractive option for a class of well-heeled “global” citizens with lots of cash and a desire to multiply their citizenship options.

Birth tourism to Canada is promoted online by immigration consultants, the kind of people who sell golden passports for “business investors” in places like Malta, Grenada, and St. Kitts, and make it easy for people to set up bank accounts in offshore tax havens like the Seychelles.

One website touts the benefits of having a Canadian baby. Not only does the newly minted Canadian citizen have the right to reside in Canada, he or she has “the ability to enjoy benefits such as free education and social benefits.”

The site, which includes a link in Russian, not-so-subtly promotes birth tourism as a bolt-hole for people living in dodgy countries. It notes that children born in Canada can go home knowing “they are Canadian citizens, and, in any part of their lives, they will be able to move to Canada and live a better life.”

The whole thing is unsavoury, and undermines the integrity of Canadian citizenship, at the same time giving anti-immigration advocates the excuse to peddle xenophobic ideas.

The issue came to the fore a few years back in Richmond, B.C., where a mini-industry developed for expectant mothers, largely from mainland China. Through specialized agencies, they’d fly to Canada before the birth, stay in specialized “baby houses,” and return home with a little Canadian.

The cost charged by the local health authority for a normal vaginal birth was set at $8,200, with C-sections costing $13,300. The New York Times estimated the cost of a full package to be $60,000. Your tired and your hungry need not apply.

At one point, close to 25 per cent of all live births at the Richmond hospital were by non-resident mothers believed to be mainly birth tourists. Many residents of the largely Chinese community were incensed.

Andrew Griffith, a retired senior official at the department of Immigration, was disturbed by the phenomenon, and began digging, convinced that Statistics Canada wasn’t capturing the numbers adequately. Using hospital data provided by the provinces to the Canadian Institute for Health Information, he determined in 2018 that babies born to self-paying, non-resident mothers were five times higher than the earlier estimates. (International students and refugee claimants are largely excluded, but the numbers aren’t foolproof.)

Griffith has updated his numbers and the results are fascinating. In 2020 (the year ended on March 31, 2021), the total of births from this class of non-resident mothers fell by more than half, to 2,433, from a peak of 5,698 a year earlier. It was the first decline since 2010, and the lowest number of such births since 2012. With the pandemic shutting down most international travel and Canada slashing tourist visas, the birth-tourism business basically dried up.

“You cut off the travel, you cut off the numbers,” says Griffith, who estimates that birth tourism now accounts for about one per cent of Canada’s live births. The drop was across the country. The Richmond hospital’s plummeted to 68 in 2020 from 502 in 2019.

Griffith’s latest numbers include Quebec for the first time, after the province lifted its ban on sharing the numbers with researchers. They show that Canada’s champion hospital was actually St. Mary’s in Montreal, where there were 502 such births in 2019, dropping to 230 in 2020. Perhaps parents were planning for a cheap education at McGill. All you need to get bargain university tuition is a Quebec birth certificate.

The decline in tourism from China has been linked to the pandemic, with tourist visas dropping by more than 95 per cent. Not only has Canada actively discouraged foreign tourists, but the Chinese government has repeatedly told its citizens “not to go abroad.”

That may continue after the pandemic, as China’s authoritarian government increasingly worries about foreign ideas undermining Communist hegemony over the country, including tourists savouring Western freedom on holiday.

All this might encourage complacency here. Conservatives have applied political pressure to limit birthplace citizenship, but, after some pushback, the idea was dropped. In part, critics say a new regime would complicate the collection of data the provinces need to issue birth certificates. The Liberals won’t touch the issue.

Some academics even say that discussions of birth tourism are racist and xenophobic, particularly when they touch on the provenance of the birth tourists, and that any changes will further prejudice anyone seeking asylum in Canada.

That’s an absurd argument. Granting an automatic passport to the child of a passport-shopping oligarch from Russia or China has nothing to do with protecting a penniless refugee from Afghanistan, or granting citizenship to the child of an international student.

Surely there’s a way of defending birthright tourism while eliminating the abuse of Canadian generosity through birth tourism. Why not tighten travel visas for pregnant women with no obvious Canadian links? And how does it make any sense for the provinces to be dedicating scarce hospital resources to caring for well-off foreign mothers?

And is FINTRAC, which tracks money laundering, making sure that foreign parents are properly accounting for their payments to hospitals and birth hotels?

Politicians seldom think ahead, but international travel will eventually recover. Now is the time to think carefully about protecting the integrity of Canadian citizenship.

MORE FREEMAN: How Papa Legault botches the pandemic and remains Quebec’s king

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