In May 2017, roughly seven months after arriving in Canada, Georgieta Palmer, 40, and her three-year-old son Samuel’s asylum claims were denied.
The claim for Palmer’s 11-year-old daughter Tenneh, however, was accepted over fears she could be subjected to female genital mutilation should she return to Sierra Leone.
But that leaves Palmer in a precarious position. The decision to accept Tenneh’s claim and deny her family means both Palmer and her son could be deported, while Tenneh is allowed to stay in Canada.
That’s because Immigration Canada doesn’t consider parents and siblings of child refugees “family members,” meaning unlike adult refugees who can stay with their families once accepted, Tenneh was barred from adding her mother and brother to her permanent residency application.
WATCH: Toronto mother could be separated from 11-year-old daughter at risk of genital mutilation. Jamie Mauracher reports.
“I think they should change that law because it’s hard for a child to be raised without a parent,” she said. “I went through it. Growing up without my mom, without hearing I love you, without a hug, without discussion… it’s hard.”
Global News has agreed to change the family’s names because of fears they could still be persecuted.
“My own elder sister… died through FGM,” Palmer said. “So I was always worried… because I don’t know if my own daughter would pass away. That’s why I’m against it.”
Mother could be forced to leave
Since her family’s asylum claims were denied, Tenneh has become increasingly depressed, Palmer says. Though bright, her school work has suffered, she appears confused and sometimes isolates herself.
“I felt sad,” Palmer said. “Especially the time they sent me a letter to go to the deportation centre. We are worried. What about if they deport me? Who is going look after her?”
“[Tenneh] was like, ‘Mommy, I will go with you. I’d rather go and die with you than live here in Canada without you,’” Palmer said.
The rule blocking kids from adding parents to their permanent residency applications applies to all child refugees in Canada, regardless of whether they arrive alone or with their family. It also applies when child refugees – such as Tenneh – have no one in Canada to care for them.
WATCH: Allowing children to sponsor parents could put them in ‘vulnerable situations,’ minister says
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, especially unaccompanied minors, from “exploitation,” but could not provide any research or statistical information to back up this assertion.
“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,” said Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen, when questioned by Global News last month.
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.
Meanwhile, Canada’s Immigration and Refugee Board has provided Global News with new statistics showing a total of 1,087 unaccompanied minors made asylum claims in Canada between 2013 and 2017. Of these, about 48 per cent – or 519 cases – were accepted.
The government could not, however, provide statistics on the number of cases where children are accepted as refugees and their parents are denied.
“Due to the complexity of this request and the limitations of our operational data system, we are not in a position to provide stats on this particular issue,” said IRB spokesperson Line-Alice Guibert-Wolff.
Still, the government insists the policy is in place to protect the “best interests” of children and that parents can apply through a separate “humanitarian” process if they’d like to stay in Canada or be reunited with their children.
Family’s lawyer calls policy ‘nonsensical’
Aleksandar Jeremic, a Toronto-based immigration lawyer, submitted an application for Palmer and her son to remain in Canada, but warns this process is “discretionary,” meaning the government could deny it for several reasons, including financial and medical concerns.
“I think it’s a nonsensical policy,” Jeremic said. “Obviously, nobody wants to either orphan children or send them back to a place where they’re at risk.”
“One wonders why not just allow the daughter to include mom on her permanent residency application from the outset,” he said.
While Jeremic thinks it’s unlikely Immigration Canada will deny the family’s case, he says the process of filing a separate application for parents and siblings is an expensive and unnecessary use of resources.
The idea that tax dollars could be used to potentially separate a child from a parent and then place them in foster care is “a bit absurd,” he said.
UNHCR ‘urges’ all states to protect family unity
Aviva Basman, senior legal counsel at the UN Refugee Agency in Canada (UNHCR), says all countries – including Canada – have an obligation to ensure child refugees are afforded the right to family.
“The importance of children to have their parents in their lives is so fundamental,” Basman said. “It’s recognized in international laws, it’s recognized in domestic laws. And that’s why UNHCR calls on all states to protect family.”
When UNHCR processes refugees, it considers the entire family as a unit, Basman says. In cases where children are in need of refugee protection and the parents are not, UNHCR extends “derivative” status to the entire family, meaning everyone is given the same protection as the child because it’s assumed they’re all at risk.
“We’d support any effort that a state would take in order to strengthen their family unity protections and to strengthen their protection of children, in particular, vulnerable children,” Basman said.
WATCH: Immigration Canada blocks teen from reuniting with parents despite Taliban death threats
Tenneh, meanwhile, says she can’t imagine life without her mother and younger brother.
She knows she’s at risk if sent back to Sierra Leone, but can’t imagine a life of foster care, either.
“I find it really ridiculous. Because how can I live here without my mom or my family?” Tenneh said.
Asked what she would say to the government and the person deciding her family’s case, Tenneh was adamant that her mom should be allowed to stay.
“Family is supposed to be one,” she said. “So taking a family away from someone is something that they shouldn’t be doing.”