Canadian would-be parents are facing severe red tape when trying to adopt from Muslim countries, according to adoption experts who are calling on the government to take action.
"What has the government done about it? Nothing," says Toronto immigration lawyer Preevanda Sapru. "It hasn't even come to the forefront that there is a problem for people to adopt from countries where there is Shariah law."
In a sudden change of policy in 2013, the Canadian government suspended adoptions from Pakistan, arguing that the country has no legal equivalent of Canada's definition of the transfer of parenting responsibilities.
The Canadian government's Adopt A Child site says, "Pakistani law prohibits adoption, instead recognizing a form of guardianship called kafala; applications for related placements are no longer accepted."
But Saskatoon immigration lawyer Haidah Amirzadeh says the problem is much bigger than that.
Amirzadeh has been working with a Canadian couple whose five-year battle to bring their adopted son home from Pakistan ended successfully last week. She says many parents adopting from Muslim countries are finding that they, too, are being roadblocked, and that their children may never be able to become Canadians simply because of the countries in which they were born.
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"I believe that this is very serious and needs public attention, as it does not stop at Pakistan. This is the issue with almost all Muslim countries," Amirzadeh says.
She adds that she has clients from Morocco, Egypt, Algeria, Iran, and Afghanistan — all of whom cannot bring their children home because the Canadian government won't recognize the adoptions, even though it has not instituted formal suspensions for those countries.
'Centre of my life'
It's a problem Canadian citizen Nusrat Munshi, 47, knows all too well.
In 2012, Munshi was working in Pakistan and obtained legal guardianship of a baby named Aleeza just two months after the little girl was abandoned at a Karachi orphanage.
But last October, Canada's Federal Court ruled that baby Aleeza wouldn't be coming home with Munshi. The court reasoned that the pair didn't meet Canada's standard of a genuine parent-child relationship.
Hearing that was the hardest part, Munshi says, because she is the only mother Aleeza has ever known.
"I haven't given birth to her, but she's the centre of my life," says Munshi from Karachi, where she remains since the ruling.
In order to be recognized here, Canada requires that adoptions first be completed in a child's home country.
But many Muslim nations have no legal provision for permanent adoption, and instead use kafala guardianship.
Canada maintains that kafala does not qualify as adoption, arguing that the arrangement does not sever legal ties with a child's biological parents.
Other Western countries, including the United States and United Kingdom, have policies allowing kafala arrangements to be legally recognized there.
Canada's position on kafala can leave families who have received guardianship in Muslim countries caught in a bureaucratic web that appears to be unique to Canada, and unable to bring their children home.
Citizenship and Immigration Canada spokeswoman Nancy Caron says it is not Canada's policy to discriminate against any country when it comes to adoption.
"Eligibility of individual countries for inter-country adoption is determined on a case-by-case basis by the provinces and territories based on Canadian laws, and with respect for international laws as well as the statutes and wishes of the originating country."
However, Amirzadeh says whether it's an official government policy or not, the red tape effectively discriminates against Muslim families. "It's like saying, 'You're born there, so you're doomed.'"
And while a formal ban on adoptions from Muslim countries isn't currently official policy, Canada hasn't entirely ruled one out.
Documents obtained through access to information show that in 2013, the provinces and territories debated a ban on adoptions not only from Pakistan, but other Muslim countries, too.
At least two provinces, British Columbia and Ontario, refused the proposal, according to the documents.
"At this time, there is no intention of extending this closure to inter-country adoptions from other countries, although this does not limit such actions being taken in the future if determined to be warranted," Citizenship and Immigration Canada wrote then.
Michael Blugerman, a Toronto-based adoption agent who was licensed to process adoptions from Pakistan for years until the 2013 ban, says while the government needs to make sure adoptions are legitimate, lumping cases from Muslim countries together isn't the answer.
"It's what I'd call a cultural-religious-profiling problem," he says.
Karachi court approval
Meanwhile, Canada and Pakistan differ over the reasons for the adoption ban.
Citizenship and Immigration spokesperson Remi Lariviere says that adoptions from Pakistan were suspended through "ongoing procedural evaluations by the Government of Canada with input from the Government of Pakistan."
But it seems Pakistan is not objecting to adoptions.
"It was a decision of the Government of Canada," says spokesperson Nazia Khalid of Pakistan's High Commission in Ottawa. "If they decide not to allow adoption, what can the Pakistani government say about it?"
Court documents show that Pakistan does not bar Canadian citizens with guardianship from completing formal adoptions abroad.
In fact in 2012, a Karachi court explicitly allowed Munshi to take baby Aleeza to Canada for adoption.
Legal experts say that as long as the Canadian government refuses to recognize such an order as valid for adoption, would-be parents such as Munshi are caught in legal limbo.
"The federal government blames the provincial governments, and the provincial governments blame the federal authorities," says Toronto immigration lawyer Ali Amini.
"In reality, the impact is most severe on the most vulnerable of all — children who will have no one to care for them."
As for Munshi, she's not sure if she'll try again to come back to Canada with her adopted daughter.
For now, she says, "I want to raise Aleeza in such a way that every country would want to make her one of their citizens."