On October 15 and 16, 2001, the National Roundtable on Separated Children Seeking Asylum in Canada was held in Ottawa. The meeting was organized by the Child Welfare League of Canada, International Social Service Canada, and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Branch Office in Canada. The organizers brought together immigration officials, child welfare professionals, and refugee advocates, in an effort to build partnerships and improve awareness of the problem of separated children seeking asylum in Canada. Participants discussed ways to resolve the tension between immigration and child protection concerns, as well as how to develop a consistent approach to the issue across Canada. Senator Landon Pearson generously agreed to host the event.
Until the summer of 1999, child refugee claimants who arrived in Canada without parents or other guardians attracted little attention or concern. Then, in July and August 1999, 134 separated Chinese youth, aged between eleven and seventeen, arrived on the shores of British Columbia. They were among the 599 migrants who traveled on four unseaworthy ships that summer.
The passengers on the first boat, including many children, were released after they applied for refugee status. Most disappeared, presumably to the United States. The federal Minister of Citizenship and Immigration decided that subsequent arrivals would be detained. The provincial Ministry of Children and Families, considering that detention would not be in the children's best interests, took responsibility for the youngsters and placed most of them in specially established group homes.
Although the care provided by the British Columbia Ministry was exemplary, many of the youth still disappeared, in particular after their applications for refugee status in Canada were turned down. It is presumed that the children yielded to pressure from their parents (still in China) and from the traffickers who brought them to Canada. While there is no certainty about where these young people have gone, most evidence points to the Chinatowns of cities like New York and Los Angeles. There, the children may end up in the sex trade or as indentured labourers in restaurants and other businesses, often until their parents' debt to the traffickers is paid off.
The experience with the Chinese youth raised difficult questions about what is in the "best interest" of such children. Article 3 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) dictates that all actions must be guided by the principle of the best interest of the child. Is returning children to parents who knowingly put their sons and daughters on dangerous boats, and sold them into slavery-like work, in the children's best interest? Would allowing a child to go flee, into the arms of the traffickers, be in the children's best interest? If a child is given refugee or humanitarian status and allowed to remain in Canada, what message does that send to parents in China or elsewhere, who are desperately seeking better lives for their children? How can Canada best assist these vulnerable children?
There are no easy answers to these questions, but they convinced the UNHCR office in Ottawa that the question of separated refugee and asylum-seeking children merited new attention at the policy level in Canada. In July 2001, UNHCR published a discussion paper entitled "Separated Children Seeking Asylum in Canada," (1) which provides an overview of the situation of asylum-seeking children who arrive without parents or guardians, identifies issues which deserve attention, and makes proposals for further action.
The report highlights the frequent tension between immigration control imperatives and child welfare concerns, and the absence of opportunities for immigration officials and child welfare professionals to exchange views on matters concerning asylum-seeking children. UNHCR therefore decided to provide a forum where these disparate groups could come together, and did so in partnership with two other organizations: the Child Welfare League of Canada, a national umbrella organization grouping provincial and private child welfare agencies; and International Social Service Canada, a non-governmental social-work agency, which operates in the countries of origin of many of the children who seek asylum in Canada.
Together, the three agencies decided to convene a roundtable, with the goals of improving awareness of the issue of separated children seeking asylum in Canada and addressing these children's protection...