Abandoned in Canada

Every year, hundreds of frightened children from the developing world arrive alone in Canadian airports. Some are sent by desperate parents hoping to spare them poverty or violence. Others have been sold to human traffickers. Who’s protecting these fragile refugees?

By David Hayes, Chatelaine, October 2009

The child arrived on the woman’s doorstep in the spring of 2006 at around 2 a.m. He was about 12 years old and was wearing a red T-shirt, a blue jacket, jeans and running shoes with the soles nearly worn through. All his other possessions — two shirts and a second pair of jeans — he carried with him in a small bag.

Hours earlier, he’d landed at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport, after journeying some 9,000 kilometres with an elderly woman who told authorities she was his grandmother. When the pair arrived in Toronto, the man who was supposed to meet them seemed to have vanished. Instead, the boy was taken in for questioning by Canada Border Services Agency officials. There was no proof that the woman was his relation. And the boy, who couldn’t speak English, who couldn’t even explain what country he was from, or what language he spoke, or why he had come to Canada, was travelling with a dubious-looking British passport.

In situations like this, the suspicion is often that the child is being smuggled into the country by human traffickers. No one will ever know, however, what terrible purpose brought the boy here. With the elderly woman sent off to be processed separately and no translator to be found, he was as alone as a person can be in this world.

So, in the middle of the night, after a child-protection worker from the Peel Region Children’s Aid Society had been notified of his arrival, the boy found himself standing at the front door of the home of a foster parent named Marilyn Waters,* a woman with a big, welcoming smile. He was a beautiful child, Waters thought when she first saw him, and very frightened. She invited him in and asked him if he’d like something to eat. Standing silently and seldom making eye contact, as though he wasn’t sure he was safe, the boy shook his head, no.

Gradually, though, he seemed to warm to her, perhaps because her skin was as dark as his and she spoke a dialect that was similar to his language. She asked again if he would like something to eat. This time he said yes, so Waters made him eggs, sausages and toast.

After he ate it, she asked if he would like to have a bath. She was happy when, again, he said yes. He was in there for an hour splashing, and Waters asked her teenaged son to make sure he was all right. The boy was fine, just thoroughly enjoying the hot water.

In Waters’s care, the terrified boy slowly began to calm down. Even still, it took a few days just to learn that his name was Azi* and that he came from Nigeria. But bit by bit, over weeks and months, Waters teased more details of his story from him. (The case notes on Azi’s arrival are slim, with few details about why he was questioned in the first place, and no information about what happened to the woman he was travelling with, or about the man who was supposed to meet them.)

Like so many newcomers before him, Azi came here not knowing a soul and with nothing to his name. But what makes his story different is that he arrived lacking one of the most important possessions of all: a sense of his own history. Azi is a part of a huge global migration of children whose pasts have been locked away, erased by trauma, by fear or by a child’s unreliable memory. It’s the refugee experience, but magnified by the vulnerability of these young people and the precariousness of their futures.


Azi is a separated minor, one of thousands of children from developing countries who find themselves stranded at airports throughout the Western world. Sometimes parents or extended-family members have managed to raise the funds to send a child away from danger or other hardships: hunger in India, the genocide in Sudan, poverty in Ukraine or forced recruitment into a child army in Sierra Leone. Sometimes it’s friends, neighbours, religious leaders or international-aid workers who help a child escape. In some cases, children even manage, through determination and ingenuity, to make their way across continents on their own. Sometimes, as may have been the case with Azi, these children have fallen into the hands of traffickers. (According to a 2008 report from the U.S. Department of State, Canada is both a transit point and a destination for trafficked children intended for prostitution, forced labour or drug smuggling.)

Mass migrations of children have occurred before. In the late 19th century, thousands of poor children were sent from the U.K. to Canada to work as indentured labourers. In the late ’70s and early ’80s, hundreds of children without families from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos (part of the “boat people” phenomenon) landed on Canadian shores. More recently, armed conflicts, ethnic, religious and political persecution, sexual exploit­ation and other human-rights abuses, and extreme poverty have increased the number of dislocated people from developing countries.

At the end of 2008, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimated the number of refugees and asylum seekers worldwide at 16 million. Of these, nearly 44 percent were under the age of 18. The UNHCR also estimates that in 2007, as many as 13,000 separated children applied for asylum in Europe alone. Between 2000 and 2004, nearly 3,000 separated minors arrived in Canada, primarily via Pearson airport, although significant numbers also land in Montreal and Vancouver. Many believe that someone — a distant relative, a friend — will be meeting them. When they come to the attention of airport officials, they’re carrying suspicious documents, like Azi, unless they followed the instructions many are given to flush them down a toilet prior to landing.

Azi, being 12, was about the average age of separated minors arriving here, although age itself can be unclear, because many children travel on adult passports and in some countries, births aren’t officially recorded. Children’s Aid Society (CAS) officials tried to research the circumstances behind Azi’s arrival in Canada and his background in Nigeria to determine if there was any chance of reuniting him safely with his family. (In his case, there wasn’t.)

The truth is that Azi’s story, like so many, will never be entirely clear. Separated minors often invent information, especially when they first arrive in Canada, based on what they’ve been instructed to say or what they think the uniformed adults asking questions want to hear. But whether Azi’s story is true doesn’t matter to CAS: The agency helped him apply for refugee status and he began the long road to an eventual hearing before the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada (IRB), an independent, quasi-judicial tribunal that decides refugee-status claims.

Meanwhile, Waters pieced together what information she could get from Azi about his past. She learned that he was from a village in rural Nigeria where he attended school only occasionally. He said that most of the time he worked in the fields and was fed one meal a day, in the evening. (She believed him: He was skinny but unusually muscular for a 12-year-old.) He didn’t seem to have known his parents, and Waters was never sure what happened to them. He was raised by a man he called his grandfather, although Waters knew that in many African cultures any older caregiver may be called an auntie, uncle, grandmother or grandfather, whether they’re blood relatives or not.

Although Azi hadn’t been receiving an education or proper meals, he didn’t seem to have been abused and wasn’t having the terrifying nightmares experienced by many separated minors. But whenever Waters suggested they go to Nigerian events to help him reconnect with his culture, he wanted no part of it. One day she took him grocery shopping and told him, “Azi, I want you to make me something from your culture.” To her surprise, he agreed to cook fufu, a thick porridge made from starchy root vegetables and eaten with dried fish in a tomato sauce, which she could see he had made before.

Although Waters loves her other three children (one of whom also arrived as a separated minor), over time she’s developed a special bond with Azi, who seemed so terribly fragile when he arrived from Nigeria. “Wherever I’m going, I feel more protective of him.”

As for Azi, every morning he wakes up early and goes downstairs to the kitchen where he had his first hot meal in Canada. He prepares a cup of coffee for the woman who has given him a new beginning. Then he knocks on Waters’s bedroom door and says, “Mom, here’s your coffee.”


Most abused or neglected Canadian children who come under the care of child-welfare agencies have grown up in a local community and have some connection to parents, extended-family members or family friends, even if those relationships are troubled ones. Separated minors, missing those links, are even more vulnerable and defenceless. (A 2008 Belgian study found that unaccompanied refugee children are five times more likely to show severe or very severe symptoms of anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress than young refugees who arrive with family members or caregivers.) Many come from cultures where they were not encouraged to express themselves to anyone, let alone to adult strangers in a foreign country. And, in any event, most, like Azi, are too young and traumatized to remember or understand the precise circumstances that brought them to Canada.

“We don’t always know exactly how they came to be here,” says Bryan Shone, manager of Peel CAS’s immigration team. “But we’ve taken a stance as an organization that, as children, they’re here through no fault of their own. They’re victims of circumstances that they’ve had very little control over. So we try to provide them with a home they can feel safe in.” At one time, a child like Azi would have been put into custody for several days while the red tape was being dealt with. But now, border officials at Pearson airport call one of the six people at the Peel CAS dedicated to helping separated minors. And once children are under the guardianship of CAS, they are placed with foster families or in group homes, joining the 80,000 children and youth in Canada’s child-welfare system.

Separated minors are entitled to representation by a lawyer, since legislation prevents CAS caseworkers from providing formal legal advice. And children are also required to have a “designated representative,” whose role is specific to the refugee claim.

Keary Grace, an associate in the Toronto law firm McCarthy Tétrault’s litigation group, is part of the firm’s unaccompanied-minors program, which provides pro-bono services. Grace used to be a social worker, an identity that is still “always behind the lawyer. I just thought if anybody needed a voice, it was some poor kid from thousands of kilometres away who has nobody and nothing.”

One of her cases involved a 12-year-old Nigerian girl whose mother had passed away. For a price, her father arranged for her to become engaged to a middle-aged man in the village who wanted her to undergo female genital mutilation, a practice the girl’s mother had opposed. The child’s aunts didn’t have enough influence to prevent the marriage from taking place, but they pooled their savings, bought her a fake passport and sent her to Canada. What Grace remembers most about the girl was her size. “You expect a child to be small, but she was so tiny,” she says. “And she was afraid, so she barely spoke. Not only did she have no social power, but she had no physical power and no voice.”

The designated representative’s first contact is with the IRB, to participate in a child’s admissibility hearing. Because separated minors are almost always in the country illegally, a removal order is issued, then stayed when a refugee claim is made. Although most of the children are ultimately permitted to stay, it can take a year for cases to grind their way through the system, and even longer for children to be granted permanent residency.

With most separated minors, there is a lack of hard evidence, especially the documentation, like birth certificates and passports, that’s so valued in Western countries. So these cases often hinge on the credibility of children for whom revisiting their past may be as traumatic as their escape from it. Many children’s histories are patched together, as much as possible, by talking to family members (if there are any) in their home countries and gathering whatever documentation exists.

With Grace’s help, the young Nigerian girl was granted refugee status, but, as Grace points out, “it isn’t over. This is still a young person utterly alone and far away from home.”


Mohammad is a handsome, olive-skinned 19-year-old sporting a thin moustache, small goatee and short-cropped hair. He’s sitting in an office at Peel CAS’s headquarters, wearing the uniform of the young male: a black T-shirt, baggy jeans and running shoes. He’s where Azi may be in a few years: a young adult who, while reserved — he can barely make eye contact with me, a stranger who has turned on a voice recorder and is asking him questions — is going to survive.

“What brought me to Canada was . . . ,” he says, pausing to stare uncomfortably at the recorder. He coughs, then asks for it to be turned off. He seems to think that everything he says will be broadcast to the world, via the internet. It’s as if he’s lost his history once and now he needs to carefully guard his precious new one. After it’s explained to him that the recording is only for my purposes, to help me write a story, he relaxes a little.

“In Afghanistan, you can’t tell how long you’re going to live,” he says softly. “There’s a war going on. A lot of innocent people dying, you know.”

When asked if anyone he knew died, he says, “A couple of guys near my house. A school blew up. A couple of neighbours, they died. Once it happens near you, you think, My life is in danger, I gotta pack up and go to a place where I can live in peace.”

Mohammad came here in 2002 as a terrified and confused 12-year-old — the same age as Azi — unable to speak English and in the company of a teenaged boy. Before Mohammad was sent to Canada, he had been in a refugee camp, and after that, he lived with an older brother — who was married and had his own family — in Pakistan, near the Afghan border. Apparently his brother had made the arrangements for him to leave. From what CAS and immigration officials could determine, his parents were dead.

Sanila Habib became Mohammad’s caseworker the day after he arrived. She remembers that when she first went to meet him he had run away from the foster home he’d been placed in. A missing-person report had been filed and the police were looking for him.

“He was with the boy he’d arrived with, who was older and had made the decision to run away,” says Habib. “Mohammad later told me they were scared because the foster family was Jamaican and African and they’d never seen anybody who didn’t look like them. I separated the boys because I didn’t want the older one making decisions that might not be in Mohammad’s best interest.

“At first, he was so terrified that sometimes he’d just cry,” continues Habib. “He spoke Farsi and Dari, but if you’re from Afghanistan you can usually speak Urdu too, which is my language. That’s why I worked with him for so long — because I could communicate with him and I understood his culture.”

Habib and CAS tried to arrange a Muslim foster home, but it’s not always possible to find a cultural match. So they decided to put him temporarily in a group home, where he would be able to socialize and he’d get more supervision. But Habib had to explain to the staff that they shouldn’t worry when Mohammad got up at 4:30 a.m. to pray or, during the Ramadan holy days, to eat. She arranged for him to visit a local mosque, which gave him some comfort while she helped him get accustomed to a Canadian lifestyle.

In the months that followed, CAS tried to piece together his story. The agency was able to get in touch with his brother, who sent some of the documentation needed for the refugee claim, including Mohammad’s birth certificate. (His brother couldn’t — or didn’t want to — continue caring for him.) Even though Habib was his closest confidant, Mohammad didn’t like to talk with her about his past. But the boy he arrived with was more forthcoming: “I’m a war child. I’m not a regular child. You don’t know what I’ve seen.”

With time, Mohammad seems to have transcended that past, or at least found some peace. He has his permanent residency and has applied to become a Canadian citizen. Today he lives independently with his cousin and the other young man who arrived with him. Before that, he lived in a foster home for several years, where, he says, “there was always food, games, movies.” His foster parents, with whom he’s still close, helped him with his homework and encouraged him to stay in school. (When I spoke with Mohammad, he was just two credits away from graduating from high school.) He’s also a talented boxer with ambitions to make Canada’s national team and compete in the 2012 Olympics.

At the end of our conversation, I asked Mohammad what he likes best about Canada. He had already told me that he appreciated the opportunities to get an education and create a successful life. And he liked the rules that made Canada a civil society without war. But those seemed like the “good kid” answers; I suspected that something more elemental lay beneath the surface.

“What’s cool about Canada is the snow,” he finally said, his face brightening. “When I first saw snow, I didn’t know what it was. I don’t want to say this because you guys’ll laugh at me. . . . ”

His current CAS representative, Sylvia Kolitsopoulos, was sitting in on the interview. She and I reassured him that no one would laugh at him.

“You know how feathers are white? The snowflakes were big and white when I first saw them fall in my schoolyard. And I said to myself, Why did people kill all those birds so their feathers are falling down?”