The number of so-called “anchor babies” — children born to non-residents for the purpose of gaining citizenship — is at least five times higher than Canadian officials had estimated, new research suggests.
Birth tourism in Canada, where women late in pregnancy fly in to deliver their babies here, is controversial because the newborns are automatically Canadian citizens and enjoy full citizenship rights such as free education and lower university fees, even though their foreign parents aren’t taxpayers.
Statistics Canada has, since 2013, counted 1,561 babies — about 312 annually — born here to mothers, whose place of residence was listed outside Canada, based on figures from provincial birth registries.
However, a new study from the Institute for Research on Public Policy released Thursday suggests the number of “anchor babies” born here every year is likely in the 1,500 to 2,000 range.
The study mined the Canadian Institute for Health Information discharge database, and according to researcher Andrew Griffith, the figures — based on hospital financial data that codes services provided to non-residents under “other country resident self-pay” — give a clearer picture of the extent of the problem.
The data shows the number of births to non-resident mothers (including all provinces but Quebec, which refused to release the data) skyrocketed to 3,628 last year from just 1,354 in 2010, said the report by the Montreal-based think tank. It showed the Richmond Hospital in British Columbia with the highest volume of babies born to non-resident mothers.
Of the top 10 hospitals where such births were recorded, six are in the GTA.
The numbers are not perfect because they don’t break down how many of the births were to mothers with temporary status in Canada, which include Canadian expatriates returning to give birth, corporate transferees or international students who didn’t come here to specifically to have children. But Griffith says a conservative estimate is that 40 to 50 per cent of the non-resident mothers were birth tourists.
“How the (delivery) services are paid for is a more representative and realistic measure than the provincial registries,” said Griffith, a retired director general with Immigration Canada, adding part of the discrepancy can be attributed to birth tourists using their temporary Canadian address on birth registration forms and hence not being counted as non-residents.
“The concern has always been these people are exploiting the loophole in the law to obtain citizenship for their children when they are not entitled to that. There’s also the financial liability and responsibility on Canadian taxpayers for the child’s benefits.”
Currently, immigration officials cannot refuse a visitor visa application on the basis of the applicant’s intent to give birth in Canada, though they can assess if the person has enough money to visit Canada, if they will abide by the visa’s departure date and if they have a criminal record and should be barred from entry.
In 2012, the then-Conservative federal government, under Stephen Harper, had considered a crackdown on birth tourism but discarded the idea because the relatively small number of incidents — based on an estimate of 500 cases a year — did not justify the anticipated costs of enforcement.
However, with immigration and refugees expected to become a wedge issue in next year’s federal election, the Conservatives voted this summer at the party’s convention to end the birthright citizenship policy that gives citizenship to babies born in Canada even if their parents aren’t citizens or don’t have legal status in Canada. The motion is non-binding but could be part of their campaign platform next year.
Griffith said any policy decision must be based on evidence and that’s what prompted him to seek out the most reliable data on the issue of birth tourism.
“Is it a widespread problem or is it just a phenomenon at the Richmond Hospital?” asked Griffith, referring to the B.C. hospital cited by the media as the epicentre of birth tourism. “We need data for informed decisions.”
He said birth tourism, currently accounting for roughly 0.5 per cent of the total annual live births in Canada, is not a huge problem but should be monitored closely.
“Using this as a starting point, if we see any further increase or a trend line, then we need to take another fresh look at it,” he said.
The study offers three options for policy-makers to tackle the problem if birth tourism gets out of control:
- Amend immigration laws to make it an offence if a female visitor fails to disclose the purpose of her visit to give birth or declare her pregnancy to officials. The child’s citizenship would then be deemed fraudulently obtained due to misrepresentation by the mother.
- Follow Australia’s move by adopting a “qualified” birthright approach specifying a person born in Canada would only be a Canadian citizen if the parent is either a Canadian citizen or permanent resident and the child lives in the country for 10 years after birth.
- Introduce regulations prohibiting rooming houses and consultant and support services for birth tourists, substantially increasing the financial deposits required by hospitals from non-residents and ordering the provinces to require proof of payment prior to issuing birth certificates for children of non-resident mothers.
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Nicholas Keung is a Toronto-based reporter covering immigration. Follow him on Twitter: @nkeung