As controversy erupts over U.S. camps for unaccompanied minors, advocates say Canada's system needs a fix

Canada isn't dealing with as many underage asylum seekers as the U.S., but people who work in the field say too many of them are at risk of falling through the cracks.

'They're brought downtown and literally just left on the street corner'

A group from Matthew House Toronto pose for a photo. Some of them arrived in Canada as unaccompanied minors. (Matthew House Toronto)
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Anne Woolger beams with pride when she speaks about the achievements of the refugee youth who live at Matthew House in Toronto.

One is studying astrophysics, she says, and many have scholarships.

But her tone changes when she describes how some of them originally found their way to the refugee shelter.

Anne Woolger, the founding director of Matthew House Toronto. (Submitted by Anne Woolger)

"They're brought downtown and literally just left on the street corner," said Woolger, the founding director of Matthew House Toronto.

"I could tell you many, many stories of young girls and young men who have just been left and told, 'OK, you want to get to a safe place, here you are.'"

Woolger says that in the past several years she's noticed a spike in the number of unaccompanied minors who have come to Toronto as refugee claimants with nowhere to go.

This week, reporter Franco Ordoñez from the McClatchy news service broke the story that the Trump administration is planning on building tent cities, which will house the growing number of unaccompanied minors who are entering the U.S. seeking refugee status.

Canada lacks records on unaccompanied minors

At least 2,000 of those children were separated from their parents at the U.S. border, according the the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. In all, there are about 11,000 underage asylum seekers being housed by U.S. authorities.

Canada does not track a total number of unaccompanied youth who have made refugee claims, which are processed by the Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) and Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC).

Between Jan. 1, 2017, and June 13, 2018, a total of 212 unaccompanied minors have made inland refugee claims, according to Beatrice Fenelon, spokesperson for IRCC. The CBSA does not have records on how many unaccompanied minors have made claims through their agency.

A Mexican child peers through the border fence near El Paso, Texas. (Jason Burles/CBC)

"The CBSA tracks the total number of minors who make an asylum claim, however our systems [do not] differentiate those that are unaccompanied," said Jayden Robertson, spokesperson for CBSA, in an email to Day 6.

Advocates who work in this field believe that the number of unaccompanied minors seeking refugee status in Canada is much smaller than the U.S., but they still see cause for concern.

One reason behind that concern is that Canada does not have a uniform system for dealing with unaccompanied minors when they arrive in Canada, according to Janet Dench, the executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees.

The Canadian Border Services Agency does not keep the number of unaccompanied minors who have made refugee claims in Canada. (CBC)

"Some provinces are better equipped with a standard procedure, so that there is a social worker who will be responsible for making sure that the minor is taken care of," Dench told Day 6 host Brent Bambury.

"But unfortunately, in some provinces, children will fall between the cracks and they're really left on their own."

Dench says many will be left to navigate the refugee claims system by themselves, but there's also a risk of something more sinister.

"There have been cases, for example, where people come into Canada with a young child and they say, 'I'm looking after the child' and then it turns out that the child is basically working in the home and not going to school and not being paid," she said.

"There's also sexual exploitation."

Third Safe Country Agreement exemption

Canada's Third Safe Country Agreement with the United States, which typically bars refugees in the U.S from making an asylum claim in Canada, does not apply to minors. 

The exemption has been criticized for creating an incentive for children to cross the border without their parents, according to Dench.

What's more troubling, she says, is that underage refugee claimants who have benefited from the exemption cannot serve as 'anchor relatives' to their parents.

We had this extraordinarily perverse situation where we were deliberately keeping a young girl as an unaccompanied minor when her parents were close by.- Janet Dench,  executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees

"There was a case a few years ago of a young Syrian girl who ... entered Canada and made her claim, and then her parents showed up on the other side of the border in the U.S. and they wanted obviously to join her here in Canada," Dench said.

"But the Canadian and U.S. governments, their position was that the child had to stay in Canada. The parents had to stay in the United States. And there was no way of reuniting the family until their refugee claims were finalized."

In that case, the Syrian girl, who was 15-years-old at the time, was separated from her parents for about a year, according to Dench.

Janet Dench is the executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees. (CBC)

"We had this extraordinarily perverse situation where we were deliberately keeping a young girl as an unaccompanied minor when her parents were close by," she added.

A minor making a refugee claim today would have to wait even longer for their case to be finalized because of a backlog in the system, she adds.

In an email to Day 6, Robertson says the CBSA takes steps to ensure unaccompanied minors will be safe.

"When an unaccompanied minor arrives at a port of entry, our primary concern is the minor's safety," he said.

"The CBSA will verify if the minor has family in Canada, and if not, they will be referred to provincial authorities and taken under the care of existing child care programs."

Detention of children at risk

But Dench maintains that the system isn't uniform, and there is nothing in the Immigration Act that talks about protecting children in these circumstances.

"The only provision that there is is a rule that says that detention of the child should be more likely if there is a risk that the child is trafficked," she said.

The logic behind this provision is that if a trafficker is after a child, the child should be detained so that they will definitely be available for their next immigration provisions, Dench adds.

"So we are actually treating them as the guilty party by putting them in detention. And this has actually happened."


To hear the full conversation with Janet Dench, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.