The "brown paper syndrome": unaccompanied minors and questions of status.

Author:Montgomery, Catherine


In principle, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms grants equal rights to all persons residing in Canadian territory. In practice, it is clear that some populations are more "equal" than others. Difficulties relating to the immigration process, access to services, and discrimination are but some of the forms of exclusion often confronted by minority and immigrant communities. For unaccompanied minors, their combined status as refugee claimants and as minors creates an added factor of vulnerability, referred to by one minor as the "brown paper syndrome." Drawing on a case study of unaccompanied minors in Quebec, the present article examines the relationship between status and barriers to integration, looking more specifically at the difficulties faced by these youth in the refugee determination process and in accessing resources in the public, private, and community sectors.


The Brown Paper Syndrome: "What I don't like is when you produce the brown paper. [...] It's not exactly racism, but then.... Other places when you produce it, it's like you're contaminated. It's just a label. Immediately it's like, `Oh, okay, there's a wall in front of me. Stay away.'" -- Natasha In principle, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms grants equal rights to all persons residing in Canadian territory. In practice, it is clear that some populations are more "equal" than others. Difficulties of access to services, discrimination, and other barriers to integration are but some of the forms of exclusion often confronted by minority and immigrant communities. For refugee claimants, the uncertainty of their immigration status increases their vulnerability. It is this added factor of vulnerability which is referred to above as the "brown paper syndrome," in reference to the immigration papers which identify refugee claimants as being "different" from Canadian citizens. The situation described above, however, is not that of an adult asylum seeker, but rather of an unaccompanied minor; that is, a youth under the age of eighteen who has been separated from his or her parents and who arrives in Canada unaccompanied by a legal guardian.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates the number of unaccompanied minors to be between 2 and 5 per cent of the international refugee population, thus representing an approximate 360,000 to 900,000 youth worldwide. (1) Although most unaccompanied minors remain in or near their countries of origin, in recent years increasing numbers have made their way to countries in Europe, North America, and Australia. (2) In 2000, an estimated 1,088 unaccompanied minors entered Canada, most of them settling in Ontario, Quebec, and British Columbia. (3) In Quebec, where the present study was undertaken, figures are not available for the precise number of unaccompanied minors who arrive each year. However, in early 2001 the Service d'aide aux refugies et aux immigrants de Montreal Metropolitain (SARIMM), the primary agency responsible for their protection, had 298 minors on file. (4) In 1999, thirty-five countries were represented in SARIMM's clientele, the majority from Africa and the Indian sub-continent (48.2 per cent and 35.3 per cent respectively) and a remaining 16.4 per cent from South America and Europe. More than two-thirds of these youth are boys or young men and just under a third are girls or young women. In terms of age, the majority, 64 per cent, are over sixteen years of age, followed by 22 per cent between the ages of thirteen and fifteen, and 14 per cent under the age of twelve. (5)

Since the unexpected landing of 134 Chinese youth off the coast of British Columbia in 1999, there has been increasing attention given to the situations of unaccompanied minors, particularly with respect to legislative and policy procedures. UNHCR Canada recently published a much-needed report on the asylum process in Canada for separated children. (6) In Quebec, the Ministry of Relations with Citizens and of Immigration (MRCI) has drawn up a preliminary discussion paper on policy issues relating to this population. (7) In Ontario a Migrant Children's Task Force was set up in 2000 for the same purpose and, in 1999, British Columbia created a Migrant Services Team in order to better coordinate services for unaccompanied minors.

All of these initiatives have inspired an essential introspection with respect to the roles and practices of institutional actors in working with unaccompanied minors in the refugee determination process. Meanwhile, relatively little is known about the way in which unaccompanied minors themselves experience this process or about the impact of the so-called "brown paper syndrome" on their establishment in Canada. A greater understanding of this experience could only be beneficial to the development of more coherent social policy and practice regarding this population. Drawing on a case study of the obstacles faced by unaccompanied minors in Quebec, the present paper examines the impact of their status as refugee claimants and as minors on everyday lived experience.

Boundaries and Barriers: Some Indicators from Existing Literature

Neither full citizens nor often even welcomed guests, refugee claimants frequently face difficult living conditions in their early years of establishment. (8) The status of refugee claimant is itself a sort of "status-in-waiting" in the sense that futures are dependent on the outcome of the refugee determination process. This period of waiting can become in itself a very significant barrier to integration, particularly in terms of access to certain types of resources.

While limited access to resources has been documented for adult refugee claimants, the specific situation of unaccompanied minors has received relatively little attention in existing literature. For adult claimants, the consequences of status are particularly prevalent in the job market, where employers often refuse to hire persons without a regularized immigration status. In Renaud and Gingras's study of 407 claimants in Quebec, 84.7 per cent acquired employment only after receiving refugee status, the median time for beginning a first job being over two and a half years (thirty-two months). Also, refugee claimants are often excluded from most government- sponsored employment and training programs because of their immigration status. Obstacles exist even in access to language training courses, generally considered to be a fundamental element of integration. Although such courses are in theory open to refugee claimants, Renaud and Gingras's study indicates that acceptance into language courses is four times greater for those who have obtained status than for those who are still in waiting. In the housing market, landlords often refuse, illegally, to rent to persons who do not hold Canadian citizenship. Just over ten per cent (10.4 per cent) of those involved in the study declared having encountered a negative reaction from landlords because of their immigration status. (9) Even for those who are able to rent, they are subject to such discriminatory practices as having to produce supplementary proof of their identity or of their capacity to make payments. (10)

Barriers of access can also be observed in publicly subsidized service domains, such as medical services, post-secondary training, and daycare programs. Refugee claimants are not covered under regular provincial health programs, but rather under a separate federal plan known as the Interim Federal Health Program (IFHP). Through this program, claimants do have access to medical services considered as being "essential," but are not covered for routine medical, dental, or mental health services. In the sector of post-secondary education, claimants are allowed access, but are not eligible for regular tuition fees paid by Canadians students. The obligation to pay foreign student fees thus becomes a substantial financial barrier to education. Similarly, claimants with young children are not eligible for daycare subsidies, a situation which is particularly onerous for single- parent families. (11)

The lengthy delays in processing refugee claims only accentuate these obstacles. In 1999-2000, the average waiting period for obtaining refugee status was 9.6 months for adult claimants and 7.3 months for minors. (12) Altogether, claimants may wait for close to two years before acquiring regularized immigration status as permanent residents. (13) Such delays maintain claimants in a state of anxiety, not knowing whether they will be forced to leave the country and not able to plan for the future. This anxiety is further heightened in the refugee determination process itself. An Australian study, for instance, establishes a statistically significant relationship between the procedures surrounding the refugee determination process and the increase of stress and other psychiatric and somatic symptoms among refugee claimants. (14) A study of the refugee determination system in Canada, undertaken by Rousseau, Crepeau, Foxen, and Houle, also reveals significant weaknesses in the ways in which claims are processed, including difficulties in evaluating evidence, assessing credibility, and conducting hearings; insufficient knowledge of the political contexts from which the claimants have fled; false representations on war; and cultural misunderstandings and insensitivity. (15)

The Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) has set up special guidelines for processing claims of minors, entitled Child Refugee Claimants: Procedural and Evidentiary Issues. (16) Although not legally binding, the guidelines are meant to set up a framework which takes into account the special needs of unaccompanied minors in the determination process. (17) Despite the well-foundedness of the guidelines, their actual implementation has been the source of concern from professionals involved both directly and indirectly with the refugee determination process...

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