The Current

Girl wins refugee status, but her family could still be deported

An 11-year-old girl has been granted refugee status in Canada due to the risk of facing FGM in her native Sierra Leone. Her mother and young brother have not been granted permission to stay, leaving her mother with an impossible choice.

Children with refugee status cannot extend protection to parents, lawyer says

A protest against female genital mutilation in Kenya, in 2007. An 11-year-old girl living in Canada has been granted refugee status over fears she would face the procedure in her native Sierra Leone, but her mother and brother have not. (MARCO LONGARI/AFP/Getty Images)

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An 11-year-old girl and her family could be split up if her mother and younger brother are deported to Sierra Leone because her refugee status does not extend to them.

"I'm just praying to God for it to get changed," the girl's mother told The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

The Current is not identifying the family due to fears for their safety.

The family came to Toronto in 2016 and applied for asylum. The girl's claim was approved on the grounds that she could face female genital mutilation (FGM) if she was sent back to Sierra Leone. But the claims for her mother and three-year-old brother were denied in May 2017. 

We are denying … refugee children the most important right that they have, which is unity with their family- Geraldine Sadoway,  professor at Osgoode Hall Law School at York University

While a parent who secures refugee status can apply for permanent residency for themselves, their spouse and their children, a child cannot do the reverse, according to Aleksandar Jeremic, a Toronto-based immigration lawyer who is representing the family. 

In a statement to The Current, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada said allowing children to include parents on their application increases the risk of exploitation "as unaccompanied minors are more vulnerable to dangers such as trafficking and other forms of abuse."

"Parents of protected children may apply for permanent residence on humanitarian and compassionate grounds, which ensures that the best interests of these children are considered prior to the landing of parent," the statement continued.

The mother has applied for permanent residence on humanitarian and compassionate grounds. The process could take a year, but if that fails, she feels she has no choice but to take her family back.

"Leaving her here is also not an option," she said. "To protect her from FGM does not mean she is safe here without a parent." She recalled her sister dying as the result of FGM when she was three years old.

She also fears retaliation if she returns home for trying to claim asylum in Canada.

'Doesn't work in reverse'

The refugee determination system has said the girl is "at risk," but there is no mechanism during the decision process to include her parent on her application, according to Jeremic. 

That's in contrast to a parent who secures refugee status, and can apply for permanent residence for themselves, their spouse and children, he said.

"The whole family gets permanent residence together, but it doesn't work in the reverse," Jeremic told Tremonti.

The family's case highlights a flaw in Canada's otherwise "compassionate" refugee determination system, said Geraldine Sadoway, a lawyer who works on immigration and refugee law, and a professor at Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto.

"We are denying… refugee children the most important right that they have, which is unity with their family," said Sadoway.

She said there is no proof that including parents on a child's claim "would somehow cause a perverse incentive for parents to send children with smugglers, to be an anchor or a beachhead in Canada."

Canada is only one of four countries in the world not to permit it, she said. The others are the U.S, the U.K. and Switzerland.

She wants that to change, and for "the definition of family member of a protected person to include the parents of a child."

"The unusual thing in Canada is that we actually have children coming with parents, who are clearly not being exploited.

"They're being protected as much as the parent can, and then being told that they might lose their parent."

Listen to the full conversation near the top of this page.

Written by Padraig Moran. This segment was produced by The Current's Danielle Carr.