September 3, 2018 7:00 am

Former UN human rights chief calls Canada’s handling of child refugees ‘inhumane’

WATCH: Canada could deport mother of 9-year-old girl at risk of forced genital mutilation. Jamie Mauracher reports.

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Canada should change the way it treats child refugees and their families.

That’s the conclusion of a former UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, who says Canada’s policy blocking child refugees from reuniting with their parents is both “inhumane and degrading.”

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“Being deprived of your parents by the law for no other reason than an immigration violation, which is not a criminal offence, is akin to cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment,” said François Crépeau, a law professor and director of McGill University’s human rights centre.

READ MORE: Mother forced to choose: Leave daughter in Canada or take her to Sudan where she faces genital mutilation

Crépeau’s remarks come following a series of Global News reports that exposed how Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada denies child refugees the right to reunite with their families in the same way adult refugees reunite with their children and spouses.

Because Immigration Canada doesn’t consider the parents and siblings of children as “family members,” child refugees who come to Canada alone and whose claims are accepted are prohibited from adding parents and siblings to their permanent residency applications once.

READ MORE: Canada could force separation of mother and 11-year-old daughter at risk of genital mutilation

Child refugees who travel to Canada with their families — but whose parents and siblings are denied protection — face the same prohibition, with the added risk that family members could be deported.

WATCH: 9-year-old girl at risk of genital mutilation fears being separated from family 

In either case, Crépeau says Canada is violating international law by denying children access to their parents and by prolonging the emotional and psychological harm that separation creates.

“There’s a question of optics here. We still do not see these people as parents of Canadian kids,” he said.

“We only see them as ‘illegal aliens,’ as they say in the U.S., just like probably 50 years ago we didn’t see aboriginal children as kids. We saw them as aboriginals, which only merited scorn.”

‘Floodgate’ argument doesn’t hold water

Immigration Canada has provided several explanations in support of this policy.

The government’s main justification is that child refugees, especially unaccompanied minors, need to be protected from possible “exploitation” and that threats of human trafficking require different sets of rules for children and adults.

READ MORE: Canada blocks teen from reuniting with family despite Taliban death threats

This was supported by the 2006 Federal Court testimony of a senior immigration official who said the government established the policy to avoid children being used as “anchors” or “beachheads” for other family members trying to enter Canada.

But the government has acknowledged to Global News it has no evidence to support these assumptions.

Meanwhile, Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen said in July that the government must look very carefully at these cases..

“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,” he said.

WATCH: Immigration Canada blocks teenaged refugee’s reunion with parents

Regardless of evidence, Crépeau says these justifications are themselves a violation international law because governments, including Canada’s, cannot construct barriers and use immigration policy as a way of “deterring” people who may be at risk from seeking protection.

“In the minds of many immigration policy makers, human rights are irrelevant,” Crépeau said.

“We see migrants who are undocumented as huge criminals because they violate national sovereignty and security, but it`s not the case,” he said. “The vast majority of undocumented migrants are totally innocuous, so the scare should not be there.”

READ MORE: ‘Illegal’ or ‘irregular’? Debate about asylum-seekers needs to stop, experts warn

Crépeau acknowledges there are circumstances that justify blocking the parent of a child refugee from entering Canada, or even deporting them — such as serious criminality, national security threats or if they’re abusive to their children — but these should be exceptions to the rule, handled no differently than any other criminal prosecution.

If government doesn’t change rule, courts will

The government has consistently said family reunification is a pillar of the Canadian immigration system and that the “best interests” of children must be protected.

Exactly what that means, however, remains up for debate.

Immigration lawyers, child psychiatrists and human rights experts have told Global News the policy, as currently written, deprives child refugees of their right to family, creates prolonged periods of separation and causes deep trauma to both parents and children. From their perspectives, the policy does not protect the “best interests” of children.

WATCH BELOW: Allowing children to sponsor parents could put them in ‘vulnerable situations,’ minister says

The government, meanwhile, despite their lack of evidence, insists blocking child refugees from adding parents to their permanent residency applications is the right thing to do, because it protects them from possible exploitation.

But this debate, in which both sides say they’re looking out for the best interests of children, will eventually be resolved, Crépeau says — whether the government likes it or not.

“If the government doesn’t change the rules,” he said, “the courts will at one point.”

That’s because both international and domestic laws have increasingly recognized a child’s fundamental right to be with their family. Crépeau says it’s only a matter of time before Canadian courts and tribunals adopt these policies.

READ MORE: Calls to end policy that blocks child refugees in Canada from reuniting with parents

For now, he says the government could, and should, act to ensure child refugees in need of Canadian protection aren’t further harmed by a policy that deprives them of this right to family.

“The government should say that children need their parents,” he said. “Any Canadian [or refugee] child who has undocumented parents has the right to ask for their parents to be documented, period.”

© 2018 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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