Aiesha Ali, 50, fled Sudan in 2013 because of fears she would be arrested, tortured or even killed for her humanitarian work helping women victimized by the country’s ongoing civil war.
She also feared her extended family – fierce supporters of an extreme form of Islam that encourages female circumcision – would mutilate her young daughter, Aliah, against her will.
“I have been fighting the idea since she was born,” Ali said. “But I am afraid it could happen without my will or knowledge.”
Global News has agreed to change the family’s names because of fears they could still be persecuted.
Fearing the worst, Ali left Sudan for South Africa, then the United States, before finally arriving in Canada in April 2016, where she made an asylum claim for herself, her daughter and her two teenage sons.
But she was refused asylum. Her daughter, however, was accepted. So now Ali must choose between leaving Aliah in Canada, unattended and a soon-to-be ward of the state, or take her back to Sudan where she could face genital mutilation.
That’s because Immigration Canada doesn’t consider parents and siblings of child refugees “family members,” meaning Aliah cannot add her mother or brothers to her application for permanent residency.
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This rule applies to children of all ages accepted as refugees, regardless of whether they come to Canada alone as unaccompanied minors or with their family. It also applies when child refugees have no one in Canada to care for them.
“If you give me two choices; to leave her here or separate [her], I say take my heart don’t take my daughter,” Ali said.
As Global News first reported in June, Immigration Canada has no evidence to support this policy. It says the rule is in place to prevent children from “exploitation,” but could not provide any research or statistical information to back up this assertion.
According to lawyers who spoke with Global News, this policy leads to prolonged and sometimes permanent family separation.
Mother faces ‘impossible dilemma’
Meera Budovitch, the family’s lawyer, has filed an application for Ali and her sons to stay in Canada based on humanitarian and compassionate grounds, arguing separation is not in Aliah’s best interest. Nor is it in the best interest of Ali or the other children, she says.
But unlike adding a family member to an application for permanent residency, which guarantees they’ll be accepted to stay in Canada so long as there are no security risks, humanitarian claims are discretional, meaning immigration officials could deny the application for any number of reasons, including financial or medical concerns.
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This is inherently unjust, Budovitch says. Not only does it deny children the same automatic right to be reunited with family afforded to adult refugees, it also opens the door to parents’ claims being denied and families being deported because they have no legal status in Canada once their own refugee claims are denied.
“I do not know anyone here in Canada that would be willing to care for [Aliah],” she said. “As a mother, the very idea that I might have to put my daughter up for adoption is terrifying.”
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Aliah’s older brother, meanwhile, says he “can’t live life without her.”
“I think it’s just inhumane,” he said. “You can’t separate families. It’s like simple meaning of life. I mean, it’s called family for a reason, people are connected together, they spend a lot of time together, so they should be together.”
Case casts doubt on government’s justification for policy
Immigration Canada told Global News the reason it blocks child refugees from adding parents to their permanent residency applications is to protect unaccompanied minors from possible “exploitation” posed by human traffickers and smugglers when kids are sent alone to Canada. However, the government admitted it has no evidence to support this belief.
Meanwhile, court documents obtained by Global News suggest the government’s reason for creating the rule was to prevent children from being used as “anchors” or “beachheads” by parents and other family members trying to enter Canada.
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While both justifications focus on the need to protect unaccompanied children, neither explanation aligns with answers provided last week by Immigration Minister, Ahmed Hussen, who, when pressed by Global News, defended the policy, saying the government must be “very careful” when reuniting children with their parents.
“Once you get into movement of children between different countries and reuniting children with their parents, there’s a lot of issues that go into that with respect to identification, with respect to establishing legal custody and guardianship and so on,” Hussen said.
Asked why this policy applies to child refugees who come to Canada with their parents, Hussen reiterated the government must be cautious when reuniting child refugees with their families, adding that the appropriate method for dealing with these cases is for parents to file humanitarian applications to stay in Canada.
But if a child is deemed to be a refugee, their identity has already been established by the Immigration and Refugee Board. Also, when adult refugees reunite with their children by adding them to their permanent residency applications, they must prove custody by providing birth certificates, court orders, even DNA testing, says Geraldine Sadoway, a Toronto-area immigration lawyer.
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This process is in place to do precisely what Hussen has described, she says. And it does not involve filing a separate application on humanitarian grounds so parents can be reunited with their children.
Family expresses ‘deep sense of dread’
Despite the trauma they’ve endured, Aliah and her brothers have adjusted well to life in Canada. They speak English fluently, without an accent, and have excelled at school.
Aliah’s oldest brother is finishing high school and plans to attend university and both boys take care of their sister while their mom volunteers at a community kitchen and learns English.
But child psychiatrist, Parul Agarwal, who assessed the family, says the children are at risk of developing severe mental illness if separated from each other – including anxiety, psychosis, depression, suicidal thoughts and drug use. She also says both brothers have expressed a “deep sense of dread” at the thought of leaving their sister alone in Canada.
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If the government denies the family’s attempts to stay in Canada, Ali will “likely not have any emotional reserves left to meet the needs of her sons,” she wrote.
According to Agarwal, that’s because Ali will be forced to choose between leaving her daughter in the care of foster parents and returning to Sudan where she’d be “powerless” to stop her from being subjected to the extreme psychological, physical and sexual complications that arise from female circumcision.
As for Aliah, she says the thought of being left alone in Canada is scarier than returning to Sudan.
“I wouldn’t have a mom that cooks wonderful food for me. I won’t have brothers that help me with my homework,” she said.
Reading a letter she wrote to Immigration Canada, she said, “I will be very happy if you let my family stay with me in Canada.”