Canada gets 3,000 child refugees a year

Child refugee Aziza was being forced into marriage and genital circumcision in her native Chad when the then 11 year old managed to escape to Canada.

Aziza, now 15, is one of hundreds of unaccompanied child refugees -- those under the age of 18 -- who show up yearly at Canadian borders seeking protection from alleged human traffickers and other abusers.

Canadian immigration officials do not track child claimants and workers estimate as many as 3,000 of them, either unaccompanied or with a guardian, show up each year at Canadian airports and land border crossings.

Aziza, whose identity is being protected because of her age, was left in Chad with an aunt by her mom, who fled to Canada as a refugee to escape persecution, Federal Court of Canada documents show.

"(Aziza) was born out of wedlock and this was considered shameful," Judge Andre Scott said in his decision. "Her biological mother left her daughter at the age of three months in the care of her sister."

Court heard the aunt subsequently left for Canada, leaving Aziza with her husband, who had collected part of a dowry in exchange for permitting the girl, then 11, to be married to an older man. As a result, Aziza had to undergo circumcision.

The mother was stunned by the news of her daughter's impending marriage and persuaded relatives in Chad to obtain documents to spirit Aziza to safety in Canada, where she arrived in January 2009 and filed an unsuccessful refugee claim.

Her failed refugee decision was appealed to the Federal Court that granted another hearing before an Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB).

Aziza is now living in Montreal with family members. Her lawyer, Claude Whalen, couldn't be reached to comment on the case.

Scott ruled in a June 25 decision that Aziza did not receive a proper hearing before the IRB.

"I am loath to believe that a refugee status claim could be dismissed solely on the ground that as the claimant is a young child he or she was incapable of experiencing fear, the reasons for which clearly exist in objective terms," he wrote.

"Given the sheer number of errors committed by the IRB in this case, the court finds that the decision is unreasonable and the matter must be returned for reconsideration," Scott ruled.

Court was told Aziza was prevented from attending school by her uncle in Chad because he believed women should not be educated and remain at home.

"Some of these children are illiterate and have little or no experience of formal schooling," according to a counsellor who works with child claimants. "Refugees may suffer from trauma-related ailments due to their experience of living in war-torn countries."

Most child refugees suffer from learning difficulties and adjusting to a new life in Canada, the counsellor said.

Aziza, as with other child claimants, are interviewed on arrival by officers of the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA.) If the children show up at Pearson Airport with no documents or anyone to meet them, Peel Children's Aid Society is called.

Society spokesperson Whitney Rodricks said child-care workers are called about 12 times yearly to help children at Pearson.

"We will conduct an investigation if the child has no documents or no one to claim them," Rodricks said. "We will investigate to determine if the the child has family in Canada."

She said workers will contact agencies in the child's homeland to try and locate family members.

"We try to return the child to their family," Rodricks said. "We will attempt to repatriate children with family members if there is not a risk of harm to that child."

She said her workers usually stay in contact with the children until they turn 21.

IRB spokesman Robert Gervais said there's no information available on child claimants.

"The IRB has no available statistics regarding unaccompanied minors requesting refugee status," Gervais said by e-mail, adding an Access to Information Request is required "to permit the IRB to see if we could compile these statistics for a given period of time."

Toronto lawyer Guidy Mamann said child claimants are provided a "designated representative" to help them during hearings before the IRB to determine if they are legitimate refugees.

"Some of these kids are quite traumatized by the time they get here," Mamann said. "Some have been through bloody wars and have seen explosions, bullets and a lot of violence."

He said some children arrive from horrific refugee camps, where they've witnessed people dying.

"Many times these children are put on flights with false documents just to get them to safety," Mamann said. "Most of the times there is no one here to claim the children."

He said cases involving refugee claimant parents with young children are heard separately, and sometimes the parents are sent back home and the children are allowed to stay.

"We have had cases where the children are allowed to stay and the parents are sent back home," Mamann said. "Sometimes the kids are not accepted and the parents are."

He added it takes from two to four years for refugee parents to sponsor their ailing children to Canada.

And, some of the youngsters are detained on arrival until their cases are sorted out.

The Canadian Council for Refugees is concerned about the detention of some of the child claimants and want a national policy on how the children should be treated.

"Significant weight is not always given to the best interests of the child when detention is being considered," the council said on its website. "Children, many of them asylum-seekers, are regularly detained in Canada, sometimes for many weeks."

The group said children are frequently in detention with a parent even though they have done nothing wrong.

In Toronto, teachers are brought in several times a week to an immigration detention centre on Rexdale Blvd. to instruct the children of refugees and others awaiting deportation. There are children's toys and games in a family wing of the centre.

"The lack of coherent policy for separated children leaves child victims of trafficking unprotected," the council said. "Canada still lacks a clear policy to ensure that children are not removed to a situation where they may be unsafe."

Canadian border agents suspect some of the unaccompanied minors may have been smuggled here by their parents or are victims of human trafficking rings.

As a result, Canada Border Services Agency officials are being pushed to develop country profiles to provide up-to-date data on the main child-refugee producing countries. And foreign embassies and international organizations in the worst countries are also being urged to do more in their country-assessment reports.


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