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B.C. scholar with expired Chinese passport says renewing it could put personal safety at risk

A prominent Chinese human rights scholar working in Vancouver says her career and personal safety are at risk because of an expired passport and delays in Canada’s immigration system.

Guldana Salimjan is a postdoctoral fellow at Simon Fraser University, who also directs the University of British Columbia’s Xinjiang Documentation Project, a federally-funded program documenting the internment of ethnic minorities in China’s Xinjiang region. The project has been referenced during debates in Parliament.

Salimjan has a job pending at Indiana University in the U.S. — but no paperwork to cross the Canada-U.S. border.

Fearful that renewing her Chinese passport would bring her to the attention of Chinese authorities who do not approve of her work, Salimjan has applied for a unique Canadian travel document that could help her.

But so far, because of system issues, it has not.

b c scholar with expired chinese passport says renewing it could put personal safety at risk
The Indiana University campus in Bloomington. Guldana Salimjan says she has a job pending at the university, but no paperwork to cross the Canada-U.S. border. (Visit Bloomington)

In February, Salimjan applied for a certificate of identity — a Canadian travel document for refugees, stateless people, and permanent residents who cannot obtain a passport from their country of origin — so she can get an American visa to begin working in August, and reunite with her husband who also teaches at Indiana University.

An ethnic Kazakh from Xinjiang and a Canadian permanent resident, Salimjan specified in her application that visiting the local consulate to renew her Chinese passport, which expired last year, means she would have to disclose her personal information to Chinese authorities.

She says she’s afraid the Chinese government could use that information to harass her and her family in China, whom she hasn’t visited since 2016.

“Because of my research … I know that it is going to be extremely difficult for me to renew my Chinese passport,” she said.

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An internment facility in the Kunshan Industrial Park of Artux in Xinjiang. Guldana Salimjan worries her research on China’s internment of Muslim minorities in the region would attract the attention of Chinese authorities, leading to the potential harassment of her family in China. (Ng Han Guan/The Associated Press)

Salimjan says she expected to receive the certificate of identity promised by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) within 20 days of submitting her application.

But after making more than 20 inquiries to the federal agency — personally and with the help of local Liberal MP Terry Beech — she still hasn’t received the document.

“I don’t know when I will be able to get this document, which is really painful,” she said. “I’m already separated from my family in Xinjiang, [and] now I’m going to be separated from my husband.”

‘It often prompts an investigation of the person’

Last week Salimjan also submitted a letter of support signed by six professors from SFU and UBC, outlining her need for the document on humanitarian grounds, in the hope of expediting the application process.

Co-signer Darren Byler, an anthropologist at SFU and senior editor of the Xinjiang Documentation Project, says Salimjan’s forthcoming work at Indiana University could help expand the project to the United States, but he argues she shouldn’t be renewing her Chinese passport to get to America.

Byler cites the experience of other Xinjiang students at North American universities, who received one-way return-home permits from the Chinese embassy to fly back to China to renew their passports — only to be taken to detention camps upon arrival.

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Passengers at the Urumqi Diwopu International Airport in Xinjiang pictured in September 2019. Darren Byler, senior editor of the Xinjiang Documentation Project, notes that many Xinjiang students at North American universities have been taken to detention camps upon returning to the Chinese region to renew their passport. (Hector Retamal/AFP via Getty Images)

“It’s really not possible for her to renew her Chinese passport either through the consulate or through a return to China,” he said.

“It makes them quite aware of your presence … it often prompts an investigation of the person.” 

Fellow co-signer Helen Leung, chair of SFU’s gender studies department where Salimjan teaches, says the certificate of identity is an indispensable document for people in exile.

She recalls her parents fleeing China for Hong Kong during the Second World War, who didn’t have a passport and travelled with a certificate of identity issued by the colonial British government, until they became Canadian citizens.

“They were stateless, just like Guldana is,” Leung said. “I understand the importance of having that document when you are essentially stateless.”

On Monday, to Salimjan’s surprise, IRCC emailed her saying urgent services for certificate of identity applicants have been suspended until further notice — a detail Salimjan says she hadn’t seen on the agency’s website before.

‘That is just not acceptable’

The federal government recently promised to address challenges around applications for Canadian immigration status and travel documents.

Two weeks ago, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced a new federal task force to help tackle major delays with immigration applications and passport processing, a situation he described as unacceptable.

NDP immigration critic and Vancover East MP Jenny Kwan says the Liberal government should also address what she calls “contradictory” information on the IRCC website, which does not immediately communicate to applicants like Salimjan that expedited applications for certificates of identity have been suspended.

“That is just not acceptable,” Kwan said.

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NDP MP Jenny Kwan says the Liberal government should address what she says is contradictory information on the IRCC’s website, in addition to delays around processing travel documents. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

CBC News reached out to IRCC for comment on Monday, who requested for Salimjan to sign a consent form permitting the agency to disclose information to CBC about her application.

The signed consent form has been sent to IRCC along with Salimjan’s application tracking number. 

As of publication time, IRCC has yet to comment on her case.

Meanwhile, with no solution in sight, Salimjan says she is missing her husband.

“[It] breaks my heart to think about my husband just living and working by himself in Bloomington.”

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