Living in Limbo: Non-Citizen Children in State Care

Anne-Rachelle Boulanger (3L), Tanzeel Hakak (3L)

In 2000, a six-year-old boy named Abdoul Abdi arrived in Nova Scotia. He arrived with his sister and two aunts, as refugees, fleeing the war in Somalia. Approximately one year later, he was apprehended by children’s services and became a permanent ward of the state. Over the next decade, Abdoul lived through 31 placements while in state care, suffering abuse in the process. Although he was eligible to become a Canadian citizen, the state – his sole legal guardian – never applied for his citizenship on his behalf, and his aunt was blocked from doing so. Today, Abdoul faces deportation to Somalia due to his criminal record. For Abdoul, Canada has not been the safehaven it was meant to be. Instead, Canada has kept Abdoul in a state of perpetual vulnerability for 17 years.  

Since September 2017, we have been working with Abdoul’s lawyer, Benjamin Perryman  to prevent Abdoul’s deportation. As clinic students with the International Human Rights Program (IHRP), we have been drafting international law arguments for a communication to the United Nations Human Rights Committee (Committee), conducting advocacy to draw attention to the case, and providing support for Abdoul’s case. In an effort to understand what brought Abdoul to his current situation, we sifted through hundreds of pages of redacted government records which detail his interactions with social workers, healthcare practitioners, child protection services, and the criminal justice system. 

In November, our work brought us to the Dorchester Penitentiary in New Brunswick, where we had the opportunity to meet Abdoul. We did not meet a hardened criminal. Instead, we met a young man with commendable insight and hope. Abdoul was reserved, but visibly excited to have visitors. He spoke to us about the difficulties of his past and his experiences in state care, as well as his hopes and plans for the future. We left the prison struggling to reconcile the man we had just met, with Canada’s caricature of Abdoul as a dangerous and unreformable offender who must be deported. 

Our work with Mr. Perryman on Abdoul’s case has starkly highlighted the interrelated flaws in the Canadian child protection and immigration systems, and the consequences for vulnerable non-citizen children. While Abdoul’s case is indeed dire, it is not unique. In fact, in 2010, IHRP clinic students worked on a case that bore much resemblance to Abdoul’s. 

Abdoul visited U of T Law where he was interviewed by CBC’s Rosemary Barton for The National and described his time in care and hopes for the future. Credit: Samer Muscati

Much like Abdoul, Jama Warsame arrived in Canada as a young child, fleeing Somalia with his family. After living in Canada for over 20 years, he received a deportation order to Somalia due to his criminality. The Committee sided with Warsame, determining that his deportation to Somalia would be a violation of Canada’s human rights obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The Committee recommended that Canada halt Warsame’s deportation. In 2012, under the Conservative government led by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Canada ignored the UN decision and deported Warsame. 

Canada’s lack of regard for the decision of an authoritative human rights body is troubling. All the more troubling, however, is that Canada has allowed similar events to repeat themselves. Over the past five years, Canada has removed at least 549 people to countries for which it has a moratorium on deportations because of war, humanitarian crisis, or natural disaster. Abdoul is at risk of being next. 

Despite hailing itself as a leader in human rights and refugee protection, Canada is failing its non-citizen children. As stated by UNICEF Canada, “… refugee children in Canada are among the most vulnerable members of our society. They require and are entitled to special consideration and protection measures.”  Yet, there is no comprehensive legislation that affords refugee children “special consideration or protection measures.” As a result, non-citizen children, are kept in a state of vulnerability until they reach adulthood – not being afforded the legal rights granted to their fellow citizens even if they are eligible to become citizens. By the time they reach adulthood, they are at risk of deportation. 

Every year thousands of refugee children arrive in Canada. According to the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA), refugee claims for minors have been increasing in recent years. From 2015 to 2016, the number of asylum seekers under the age of 17 jumped from 2,011 to 3,400. Whether they arrive with legal guardians or are unaccompanied, these children may ultimately find themselves in state care. Even though international law requires additional protection for children in care, the boundaries of Canada’s basic minimum obligations to children in its care are yet to be determined. Securing citizenship and the right to have rights would seem to be part of that minimum core obligation, but our research suggests that there is a mixture of policy responses across Canada. What is clear is that, without citizenship, children in care are vulnerable to deportation when they reach adulthood, and that the experience of being a child in care exacerbates that vulnerability. 

A recent study by the Provincial Advocate for Children & Youth found a link between involvement in foster care and low-academic achievement, unemployment, homelessness, and criminality. The outlook even more grim for children who are likely to have experienced trauma prior to arriving in Canada and are struggling to adapt to a new culture. This is especially troubling given that there is no unified policy to address the special needs of non-citizen children in care. While some provinces have made efforts to develop programs specific to the needs of non-citizen children in care, others have ignored this entirely. For instance, in response to the influx of Syrian refugees entering Canada, the Peel Children’s Aid Society has developed an internal specialized immigration team. Conversely, children’s services in Nova Scotia, which was involved in Abdoul’s case, appears to have no policy in place at all with respect to non-citizen children in care. 

Abdoul’s case provides a glimpse into a system riddled with gaps. Since we last visited him in November, his case has garnered national attention but has also become more challenging. After he was released from prison on January 4, 2018, the CBSA immediately placed him in immigration detention. He was finally released on January 17, 2018. Abdoul’s family, friends, and the broader community have engaged in advocacy efforts to demand that his deportation be halted. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau addressed Abdoul’s case at several town hall meetings, stating that, although Canada’s foster system had failed Abdoul, our immigration system is "based on rules and principles but that it is also compassionate and reflects on individual cases." 

We need to reflect on the inhumanity of deporting a young man due to the failures of a broken system charged with protecting children. Additionally, we need to reflect on how our immigration system is interacting with international human rights obligations. This system has contributed to violations of customary legal norms and international human rights law. We stand alongside Abdoul and the hundreds of others who have succumbed to this broken system when we say that we are disappointed and angry.  It is high time for Canada to live up to basic principles of human rights.

From left to right: Hanna Gros, Audrey Macklin, Tanzeel Hakak, Benjamin Perryman, Abdoul Abdi, Asha Abdi, Anne-Rachelle Boulanger, Lauren Pinder. The IHRP team met Abdoul and his aunt Asha, at U of T Law, to celebrate the small victory of his release from immigration detention. Credit: Samer Muscati