“In all actions concerning children, whether undertaken by private or public social welfare institutions, courts of law, administrative authorities or legislative bodies, the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration.”
Convention on the Rights of the Child, Article 3.1
A growing number of children arrive in Canada alone or without legal guardianship to claim refugee status every year; 1,087 unaccompanied minors and 1,683 separated children arrived in Canada over 2000-2004, estimate Judith Wouk et al. in their “Unaccompanied/ Separated Minors and Refugee Protection in Canada: Filling Information Gaps.” An unaccompanied minor is a youth under the age of eighteen who has been separated from his or her parents and who has arrived in Canada without a legal guardian.
The separation of children from their families occurs for a variety of reasons including imprisoned parents, death of parents, abandonment, brutal conditions in orphanages, armed conflicts that target child civilians, genocide, forced recruitment into armed forces, trafficking for the purposes of prostitution, persecution of the child’s ethnic group, denial of education due to ethnic identity, poverty, and medical conditions needing treatment. Both at the government and community level, Canada has a long way to go to make the best interests of unaccompanied minors their primary consideration in asylum seeking and integration.
Refugee claimants frequently face difficult living conditions in their first years of settlement. Their lack of regularized immigration status is in itself a very significant barrier to integration, particularly in terms of access to resources such as education, medical insurance, mental health services and employment.
Unaccompanied minors are subject to vulnerability “not only because of their immigration status as refugee claimants, but also because of their status as ‘minors’,” finds Catherine Montgomery in her case study of the obstacles faced by unaccompanied minors in Quebec. She documents the increased vulnerability of child refugee claimants in what she calls the “brown paper syndrome” referring to the children’s everyday life experiences as a refugee in Quebec.
This vulnerability is best exemplified in regards to guardianship; under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, a designated representative (DR) must represent any minor appearing in proceedings before the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) in Canada. Provinces have each developed their own means of providing a DR.
In Quebec, the Service d’aide aux réfugiés et aux immigrants du Montréal métropolitain (SARIMM), a group of community service centre personnel with expertise in services for refugees and immigrants, is notified by Citizenship and Immigration Canada when an unaccompanied minor arrives. Each minor is assigned two case workers: one for the IRB process (under a formal agreement with IRB Quebec), and one for settlement services. In Quebec, between 200 and 300 unaccompanied minors arrive every year and given that SARIMM’s counselling service is comprised of a mere four people, there is little opportunity for sufficient attention and care. Plainly, insufficient staff and resource allocation stop short of meeting the needs of unaccompanied minors.
Morever, the lack of generalized judicial mechanisms for guardianship in Quebec prevents minors from engaging in activities that are essential for their successful settlement. Not having a guardian, and being under eighteen years of age, restricts them from signing important legal documents including social welfare transfers, language training and employment programs.
Canada, through its IRB, the federal body that hears refugee protection claims, has set up guidelines to take into account the “special needs” of unaccompanied minors while processing their claims. Unfortunately these guidelines are not legally binding and their implementation has failed to put the interest of the children first. Wendy Ayotte in her “Separated Children Seeking Asylum in Canada” states some of the more serious problems as language barriers, cultural misunderstandings and differences, inappropriate questions, lack of understanding of past conflicts and inappropriate forms of questioning on behalf of the IRB board members.
Canada was the first country to develop guidelines for dealing with unaccompanied minors. Currently, child protection and social services fall within the mandates of provincial governments and territories, while policies related to immigrants and refugees are a federal responsibility.
This leads to a lack of coherent social policy throughout the country, making it difficult to address the plight of refugee claimant children. A concerted effort is necessary both in the federal, provincial and community level to prioritize the best interests of unaccompanied minors.
The federal government has a role to play in developing more coherent policies and measures to take into consideration the best interest of unaccompanied minors. According to Montgomery, the refugee determination process needs to be reformed to reduce the delays in processing claims and the arbitrary application of children’s guidelines in this process.
Furthermore, the government needs to promote greater awareness of the special needs and rights of this population through informational tools and training programs among service providers. Both the federal and the provincial governments have a central role to play in increasing funding to social workers, enhancing support networks and community services to unaccompanied youth to make sure that the Convention on the Rights of the Child is respected. These measures would reduce the anxiety and barriers experienced during the waiting period, and give justice to the humanitarian basis upon which these minors were admitted to Canada.
Sarah Mostafa-Kamel is an activist in Montreal.