Children banned from flying? Sadly, it’s not that uncommon


By Amira Elghawaby
The Globe and Mail | January 8, 2016

Sharing vacation stories makes returning to the humdrum of life more bearable, especially for school-age children who eagerly retell their family’s holiday adventures.

But how does a child explain to his classmates that he was delayed reaching a hockey game because his name appears on a mysterious list which even his parents are powerless to affect?

Recently, 6-year-old Syed Adam Ahmed and his family’s unbelievable story garnered headlines. The young boy, travelling with his father on what should be an exciting trip down to Boston to watch the NHL Winter Classic, had trouble reaching the event because an official, or perhaps a computer program, deemed him a potential security threat.

Sadly, the story is not that uncommon. A British family headed to Disneyland was stopped from entering the United States last month for no clear reason; in February last year, a Toronto physician and his family were barred from making a similar trip.

There are many more stories of Western travellers inexplicably hindered from travel with little to no recourse.

Does any of this represent racial profiling, now commonly referred to as Flying While Muslim, the equivalent of Driving While Black? Maybe, but even those who aren’t Muslim have been caught up in this flawed system, including several children.

All of this has deep ramifications, both on people’s lives and on law enforcement’s ability to effectively do its job.

Screening the same innocent people over and over again, or those with no specific reason to be stopped other than for their race or religion, takes away limited resources that would be better deployed looking for criminals.

Canadian airlines and companies need to think carefully before acting upon what may be flawed information. In a ruling last July, the Supreme Court of Canada warned that it’s wrong to assume that « [a] company can blindly comply with a discriminatory decision of a foreign authority without exposing itself to liability under the Charter. »

Canadians are no strangers to such rights violations. The report from the Maher Arar Inquiry in 2006 identified deep flaws in national-security policies and lack of meaningful recourse for falsely labelled individuals. A few years later, the International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group released a detailed report calling for a full review and overhaul of border controls and no-fly lists.

Not only were all of these recommendations ignored, but the status quo recently became further entrenched with the hasty passage of new anti-terror legislation and with it, the establishment of the Secure Air Travel Act in August, 2015.

This means that Canadians such as Syed Ahmed will continue to face travel obstacles as a so-called security threat, or feel compelled to legally change their names, as at least one family reported doing for their children.
This isn’t the kind of story any child should have to recount upon returning to school. But it is an opportunity to ensure that « a Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian, » as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has insisted, and that principles of fundamental justice apply equally to all of us.

Amira Elghawaby is the communications director of the National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM).