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Ontario’s advocate for children and youth is expanding his reach to include teenage asylum seekers.
Irwin Elman said this week that he is increasingly concerned about vulnerable youth entering Canada on their own. He recently met with federal immigration and border officials so they could develop a plan to work together to protect teenagers who come to the province on their own.
Canada has seen an influx of asylum seekers walking across the border, mainly in Quebec, in recent months. Many of them are Haitians who have been living in the United States and fear they will be deported.
“I would say my concern is exacerbated by the worry about what is happening south of our border,” said Elman. “There is an expectation that more and more young people will come unaccompanied. Our services to settle them are already stretched and will be stretched further. My office is trying to become prepared.”
Janet Dench, of the Canadian Council for Refugees, said she doesn’t have numbers on how many of the recent surge of asylum seekers are unaccompanied minors, but Elman said there have always been youth who arrive on their own and are vulnerable. As numbers of asylum seekers increases, so will unaccompanied youth.
Under a bill expected to become law in Ontario early next year, the age of protection under child welfare has been extended to 18. Previously, children already in the system were protected until age 18, but those who hadn’t been could not enter after 16 years of age.
What that means for asylum seekers is that, as of next year, they can receive assistance from provincial youth authorities, including financial support and free tuition, said Elman. They could even chose to come under the care of child welfare services, he said.
Currently, Elman said, children of 16 and 17 who come by themselves are sent to shelters “to fend for themselves.”
In addition to giving unaccompanied minors access to child welfare services, Elman said his office will advocate for their best interests.
He said he is working to try to estimate how many children have come on their own and might be coming in the future. But, he added, it is already happening in Ontario.
“This is not uncommon in Ontario. I have met many young people who have come and have not been able to avail themselves of the services of the child and youth welfare system. It is very difficult for a child to leave everything and risk coming to somewhere where they know nothing.”
He said he has talked to young people who have ended up in the shelter system in Toronto while waiting to learn whether they can stay in Canada.
“They have left behind very tense and difficult situations. It can be very stressful. The young people I have met waiting for a decision from Immigration Canada are beside themselves with worry and stress. It can bring on symptoms that look something like PTSD. They are very vulnerable.”
He said in future he hopes teenagers who are 16 and 17 (and those younger) who arrive unaccompanied are told that they have a right to obtain child welfare services in Ontario.
“Our approach will be open and welcoming, within the guidelines.”
By Elizabeth Payne