The Current

An Afghan asylum seeker on the story behind his illegal crossing into Canada

Mohammad Amin Sadiqi is one of thousands of asylum seekers who have sought refuge in Canada by crossing the U.S. border illegally. He told The Current why he felt compelled to do it.

Mohammad Amin Sadiqi urges us to see migrants as people, not numbers

Mohammad Amin Sadiqi in Afghanistan with his three sons. (Submitted by Mohammad Amin Sadiqi)

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The first time Mohammad Amin Sadiqi realized what it meant to be in a country illegally, he was still a child.

Civil war was underway in Afghanistan, and the fighting had taken over the streets where he lived. So, his family fled to neighbouring Iran for safety.

Shortly after their move, Sadiqi asked his mother to bring him to a nearby school to register him for classes. But when the school's administration realized Sadiqi's family didn't have legal status in Iran, they told them education was a luxury not afforded to people like them.

"That day, I realized that we are different," Sadiqi told The Current's guest host, Piya Chattopadhyay.

That day, I realized that we are different.- Mohammad Amin Sadiqi

"We as Afghan, we as the people from the other side of the border, were labeled illegal, and that illegality meant being deprived from education, on top of other civil rights."

Heated political debate

Immigration has been a hot-button topic in Canadian politics this year, as droves of asylum seekers crossed illegally into Canada from the United States.

This past summer, Sadiqi became one of them, crossing to Quebec from New York state. He chronicled his experience in a CBC Opinion piece earlier this month. 

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has defended his approach to dealing with the issue, which stresses the importance of giving asylum seekers due process, while Conservatives have criticized him for encouraging people to seek refuge here.

In the middle of that debate, Sadiqi says, there's a conversation missing on the story behind each person who chooses to make the crossing. 

Asylum seekers walk along Roxham Road near Champlain, New York on Aug. 6, 2017, making their way towards the Canada-U.S. border. (Geoff Robins/AFP/Getty Images)

"We just see those people as numbers, you know, as queue jumpers," said Sadiqi.

Long road to Canada

The journey that led to Sadiqi's second illegal border crossing was a long one. 

After losing the basic right to education as a child in Iran, he devoted himself to self-learning. In every spare moment, he would pick up a book, educating himself in hopes of some future payoff.

It wasn't until Sadiqi was 28 that he set foot in a physical classroom again. He eventually went on to earn a bachelor's degree from the American University of Afghanistan and, in 2013, moved to the United States to pursue a master's degree from New York University.

He has since worked in the humanitarian sector in Afghanistan and is an education activist.

An asylum seeker, claiming to be from Eritrea, is questioned by an RCMP officer as he crosses the border into Canada from the United States on Aug. 21, 2017 near Champlain, N.Y. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

But going back to Afghanistan wasn't an option — Sadiqi is part of the Hazara ethnic group and also a Shiite, both of which he said are targeted by ISIS in Afghanistan.

This year, faced with a U.S. government whose immigration policies and rhetoric led him to believe he had no chance of seeking asylum there, Sadiqi decided he once again had to leave.

"I didn't feel that [the] United States provide the right kind of support for a person like me," he said.

A price for refuge

With all his education and experience, Sadiqi has been asked why he didn't apply to come to Canada as a skilled, or economic, immigrant. But he said it's not as easy as it may sound.

"Many of my friends have tried that, and I know no one in Afghanistan … who could come to Canada through this way," he said, referring to people with master's degrees or PhDs.

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada told The Current that 210 economic immigrants have been accepted into Canada from Afghanistan in the last five years. Only 15 of the 3,455 people from Afghanistan accepted to be permanent residents in 2017 were economic immigrants, the department said.

Sadiqi said crossing into Canada at an irregular entry point was his best option.

Mohammad Amin Sadiqi in Ottawa, a few days after his arrival. (Submitted by Mohammad Amin Sadiqi)

But it has a price.

"We have to spend a lot of time with uncertainty, you know, leaving our family and our kids behind," said Sadiqi, whose three young sons and wife are still in Kabul, and ask him frequently when they will be together.

"I wouldn't do that if I had other choices, if my country was safe, if I could live there … I just came here because I had to."

Click 'listen' at the top of the page to hear the full story.

Written by Kirsten Fenn. Produced by Karin Marley.


  • An earlier version of this story referred to an Afghani asylum seeker, rather than an Afghan asylum seeker.
    Dec 27, 2018 9:35 PM ET