The Current

Separation of families at Canadian border is creating 'invisibly detained children': advocate

We explore the impact on children being separated from their parents at border crossings — not just in the U.S., but around the world.

Conditions not comparable to U.S., but 'detention is detention,' says Paul Clarke

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

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An advocate for refugees says he's noticed a trend of just one parent being detained when families cross the border into Canada, while the rest of the family is sent to temporary accommodation.

"What this results in is … the family unity [being] broken," said Paul Clarke, executive director of Action Réfugiés Montréal, which supports people seeking refugee protection in Canada.

Clarke told The Current's guest host Katie Simpson that in some cases, these parents will not know each other's whereabouts, or have a way to contact each other.

"Sometimes in our office we'll get a call from a man detained saying, 'I came to Canada yesterday, my family and my wife are no longer with me, I have no idea where they are, could you possibly find out?'" he said.

He said that these children are effectively being separated from their parents, but that fact is not being recorded as the children themselves are not in a detention centre.

"These are what we're calling the invisibly detained children — in the sense that there's a family member who is detained — and they're not even coming up in statistics now."

A Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer informs a migrant couple of the location of a legal border station, shortly before they illegally crossed from Champlain, N.Y., to Saint-Bernard-de-Lacolle, Que., using Roxham Road. (Charles Krupa/Associated Press)

According to the Canada Border Service Agency's (CBSA) most recent figures, a total of 37 minors accompanied by a parent or guardian were detained for an average of 28.2 days between Oct. 1 and Dec. 31, 2018.

The CBSA ​​​​​"endeavours to limit the use of detention to those difficult cases where there are serious concerns about a parent's or guardian's identity, a flight risk or a danger to the public," the agency said in a statement to The Current.

"CBSA detention decisions when minors are involved are guided by the best interests of the child. It is very rare that a parent and child would be separated." 

Children can face 'lifelong challenges'

In 2017, the federal government imposed stricter limits, but no all-out ban, on the detention of minors in immigration holding centres. The changes included making the best interest of the child the primary consideration in any decision, rather than just being a factor.

Minister of Public Safety Ralph Goodale in the House of Commons on May 10, 2018. In 2017, he said he wanted 'to reduce the number of children in detention to virtually zero.' (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

"We're moving in the right direction," said Minister of Public Safety Ralph Goodale at the time.

"My objective is to reduce the number of children in detention to virtually zero." 

Dr. Samantha Nutt, the founder of War Child Canada, said that the government has made progress, but there is still work to be done.

Last month, a United Nations report estimated a record 71 million people have been displaced worldwide by war, persecution and other violence. The figure is the highest since the end of the Second World War.

"We are seeing more children throughout the world who are arriving across borders hoping to seek asylum," Nutt told Simpson.

Those who arrive in Canada may have "witnessed horrific violence and horrific abuse, [and] in some cases they have witnessed the death or murder of their own family members."

They feel anxious, depressed. They have sometimes behavioural issues.- Dr. Samantha Nutt

That can result in "lifelong challenges," she added.

"They feel anxious, depressed. They have sometimes behavioural issues, many report sleep disturbances."

Addressing those issues "can take months, if not years, of intense psychological support for these children," she said.

She warned that the longer they are in detention or separated from loved ones, the longer it takes to re-integrate them into schools or new communities.

'Detention is detention'

Clarke said that despite the government's pledge to reduce the number of children in detention, the problem persists.

His organization visits an immigration holding centre in Laval, Que., outside Montreal, on a weekly basis. 

A guard stands outside the gates of an immigrant holding centre in Laval, Que., on Aug. 15, 2016. (Graham Hughes/Canadian Press)

"We were hopeful that in 2018 there would be fewer to nil children," he told Simpson, but added there were only two weeks that year where the group saw none.

"There are still children there on a regular basis, and this is continuing in 2019."

Clarke said that detainees in Laval are separated by gender, which splits fathers from their wives and children, but the families are allowed to meet at meal times. Food and some medical assistance is provided, but the children must request time outside, and often don't have the necessary clothing to venture out in winter.

He said the conditions are not like those reported at facilities along the southern U.S. border, where the UN human rights chief has said children sleep on the floor, sanitation is poor, and people don't have proper access to food.

But "detention is detention — the families are being restrained of their liberty," Clarke said.

"The conditions are all right ... if you think it's all right for children to be detained."

Click 'listen' near the top of this page to hear the full conversation.

Written by Padraig Moran. With files from CBC News. Produced by John Chipman, Ines Colabrese and Danielle Carr.