As the world spent the last two weeks watching the pro-democracy movement swell in Egypt, occasional outbursts of violence prompted many governments to advise their citizens to avoid travelling there. Some are also arranging to get people out. Multiple governments of varying prosperity have organized charter flights to evacuate citizens. Even the Iraqi government has procured flights, despite the irony that many Coptic Christians fled to Egypt to avoid persecution in their homeland.
So far, three flights chartered by the Canadian government have left Egypt. The first flight out left hours late, after airport staff demanded a collective $2,000 bribe from all passengers before granting access to the plane. A fourth flight was delayed due to a lack of interest. About half of passengers on Canadian flights have been Canadians, with remaining seats being filled by mostly other Western nationals.
The Canadian government has decided to charge Canadian evacuees for their flight. According to the consular website, “passengers must sign an undertaking to repay the Government of Canada for $400 per seat, which will be claimed after their return to Canada. Canadian citizens accompanied by non-Canadians must sign an undertaking to repay on behalf of their co-travellers.” The website doesn’t specify how the amount will be collected. Other governments do the same: UK citizens are expected to pay “approximately £300” ($480 CAD) before boarding a government-chartered flight home, while the Americans are expected to pay for the trip to Europe, and the Australian government is paying the expense.
Why make Canadian citizens pay for their own evacuation? There are a few possible reasons, and they all have to do with the 2006 Israel-Lebanon conflict. During that crisis, the Canadian government evacuated 15,000 citizens at a cost of $6,300 each, totalling $94 million. That cost prompted outcry from fiscal conservatives. Which means a classic conservative move this time around—user fees!
The 2006 outcry was also not-so-subtly tinged with anti-immigrant sentiment: the operation prompted Conservative MP Garth Turner to coin the term “Canadians of Convenience,” referring to people who obtain Canadian citizenship but return to their home country, therefore contributing little by way of taxes, but enjoying consular protection and other benefits of a Canadian passport. By charging for evacuation this time around, the Conservative government deflects some of the “freeloading foreigners!” accusations.
In September 2006, Stephen Harper mused about changing the rules around dual citizenship, in order to prevent another episode in which the government would have to pay to evacuate citizens “of convenience.” Judging from the Egypt experience, it looks like some of those changes have already been made.