In 2016 Canada received 287 unaccompanied minor refugee claimants, a number which later increased to 492 in 2017, according to the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada. Unaccompanied minors are those who arrive to the country under the age of 18 and without a legal guardian. In Canada, refugees arriving under a government or private sponsorship are given a set of supports to help start their lives, including assistance with housing, financial support for food and guidance about adjusting to life in a different country. In contrast, refugees arriving at the border unannounced do not receive this level of support.
Matthew House, which opened in 1998, is an organization that assists refugee claimants in Canada, including unaccompanied minors. Anne Woolger, founder of Matthew House and a refugee advocate, suggests that the growing number of unaccompanied minor refugee claimants arriving in Canada is a recent problem. She said, “I don’t remember seeing them back 30 years ago, period.” She added “Some of them are coming … 15-, 16-, 17-year-olds by themselves with no parents.” Furthermore, she stated that “They were coming from the same country, with same stories of persecution, torture, really heartbreaking … [then] they were literally numbered among the homeless.”
The increasing number of unaccompanied minors seeking refugee status in Canada is a serious indication of the global issues that are driving poverty, inequality and conflict. These issues have considerably uprooted lives and forced many to seek refuge elsewhere. Homelessness is therefore a major problem for these people, as often these circumstances cause them to arrive unannounced and without a private or governmental sponsorship in place to access essential support services. An increase in housing for unaccompanied minors is certainly a necessary move for the future, as the services of private charitable organizations have shown that this resource significantly increases the safety of these young people.
As of now, 2018 stands on track to be the year with the highest number of refugee claims in Canada since records began. On a broader level, it is crucial to address the factors that lead to so many to claim refugee status globally. More methods to reach to families and individuals pre-emptively could lead to an easier process of seeking refugee status in Canada. Furthermore, having a comprehensive, fair and compassionate system to assist vulnerable individuals and populations in making their case for official refugee status in Canada is essential. Governments at all levels in Canada must therefore increase provision of comprehensive supports for this increasing number of refugees, including fair opportunities to present their cases at refugee hearings. The stories of unaccompanied minors seeking refuge in Canada are indicative of the power that strong support networks have in making a successful transition to life in a different country, especially for individuals escaping perilous conditions in their home countries and making perilous journeys to a place of refuge.