Jama Warsame sat in the back of an airplane soaring toward his nightmare. To his right sat two Canadian government escorts, a man and a woman, neither “particularly tough-looking,” Warsame recalls.
It was February 2012, shortly after Warsame’s 28th birthday and, despite the efforts of his dogged lawyer, two imaginative law students and the backing of the United Nations, Warsame was being deported from Canada to Somalia, a place he had never been, with languages he did not speak, in the midst of bloody civil strife. Warsame, who grew up in Canada, found himself in a terrifying situation: He was more Canadian than Somali, but not Canadian enough to avoid being deported to a country where he could be killed.
Warsame was born in 1984 in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, to two Somali parents, but wasn’t eligible for Saudi citizenship. At the age of four, his family moved to Canada and he became a permanent resident. He attended public schools in Ottawa and Toronto. His family did not take steps to apply for his citizenship. As a young man, by the time he should have been a citizen, he was building a criminal record. This put a passport out of reach. He would remain a citizen of no country.
Warsame has been convicted of assault, robbery, theft, possession of crack cocaine and more. He attributes much of his record to drug addiction, but his voluminous criminal record triggered a government decision to deport him in 2006. Where to? Somalia was the only place where he qualified as a national, through his parents, so Somalia it would be.
In February 2007, a government assessment concluded he was at risk of cruel and unusual punishment if he were returned to Somalia. Two years later, the minister of public safety at the time, Peter Van Loan, disagreed and overruled, citing public security concerns. Warsame’s lawyer, Carole Dahan, was appalled that Canada would return him to a place where he “faced such clear risks.” As a young male foreigner without the language or family connections, his lawyers argued, he was vulnerable to being targeted or recruited by groups such as al-Shabab. “Here was a case where Canada just got it wrong,” she says.
Dahan, in “an act of frustration with the Canadian system,” appealed to the United Nations—specifically, the Human Rights Committee, a body of legal experts charged with interpreting the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, a treaty to which Canada is a party. She enlisted the help of two University of Toronto law students, Ryan Liss and Adrian Johnston. Beyond an argument about the risks Warsame would face in Somalia, Liss and Johnston argued that the concept of Warsame’s “own country” was broader than his nationality. In effect, they articulated a right to remain in one’s own country, even without citizenship or official nationality.
Meanwhile, the government focused on Warsame’s “history of violence” and disagreed that his deportation to Somalia would cause “irreparable harm.”
In the end, Dahan and the students prevailed: The United Nations body instructed Canada to cancel Warsame’s deportation.
Canada had stayed Warsame’s deportation order while awaiting an outcome from the Human Rights Committee. However, after it lost the decision, it ignored it.
So it was that, in February 2012, Warsame found himself on the flight accompanied by government agents. The itinerary included stops in Amsterdam and Nairobi. Once in Nairobi, his escorts would put Warsame alone on a final plane to Mogadishu. Somalia was deemed too dangerous for the escorts to make the journey.
Warsame had other plans. Once in Amsterdam, as his escorts shuttled him between flights, he struggled to get the attention of a Dutch immigration official “who was acting like he didn’t want to hear me,” says Warsame. He asked for asylum, again and again. Dutch officials eventually agreed to review his claim. In the meantime, he could stay in the Netherlands.
Citing privacy reasons, the Canadian Border Services Agency declined repeated requests for comment on Warsame’s case, or his eleventh-hour evasion.
After a period of detention, Warsame was released, subject to weekly check-ins with the authorities. Ever since, he has lived in Amsterdam in refugee housing, without authorization to work. The respite turned out to be short-lived. In October, Dutch authorities rejected his asylum claim on procedural grounds. Incredibly, the Dutch do not believe he is a Somali national.
To recap: Warsame was a Somali national to Canadian officials, but not Somali enough for the Dutch. Now, when the Dutch try to deport Warsame, they will find there is only one country in the world where he has a right to enter: Somalia.
“I have two options now: co-operate and let them send me to Somalia, or go underground,” Warsame says. “If I go to Somalia, I’ll get killed.” Going underground, he explains, could involve fleeing to another European Union country. “I’m tired of living an illegal life,” he says. “Canada is my home.”