Tamil refugee boy in immigration limbo

  • September 18, 2009
{mosimage}TORONTO - Since July 31 Citizenship and Immigration Canada has been unable to decide whether a 14-year-old refugee abandoned and alone in an African city of three million is an urgent case.

The Tamil boy is a refugee from Sri Lanka’s bitter ethnic war. He doesn’t know whether his family is alive in Sri Lanka’s monsoon-soaked camps or dead. Nobody has heard from them since April and a Red Cross search has so far turned up nothing. Alone in Accra, Ghana, the boy can’t speak English, is frequently bullied and depressed.

His uncle in Toronto, backed by Prince of Peace parish and the Office of Refugees of the Archdiocese of Toronto (ORAT), has applied to sponsor the boy and requested the case be treated as urgent. While CIC officials in Toronto indicated the case would be expedited, a visa officer in the Canadian high commission in Accra initially told the uncle the case did not warrant “urgent need of protection” status.

After learning The Catholic Register was investigating the case the visa officer has requested the application for urgent protection be resubmitted for a third time.

The boy’s uncle is adamant that his name and the boy’s name be kept out of the press. He is fearful that if the boy’s parents are alive the Sri Lankan army will take action against them. In recent years his family has been targeted by pro-government militias and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, he said.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Accra has certified that the boy is a refugee and “a person of concern.” He has no legal status in Ghana and the Ghanaian refugee board has indicated it would ship him back to Sri Lanka.

Child refugees from the Sri Lankan war are not uncommon. Like many Tamil families caught up in the end stages of the war, the boy’s parents paid a neighbour to get the boy out of Jaffna — first to Colombo in April 2008, then out of the country a year later.

Martin Mark, who runs ORAT, has heard of Tamil children turning up in Beijing, the British Virgin Islands and elsewhere.

“It’s similar to the Jews in the Second World War,” said Mark. “It was just random that he ended up in Ghana.”

Once in Ghana the neighbour disappeared with a last payment from the boy’s parents earlier this year. It was only through a chance encounter with an Indian businessman in Accra that the boy was able to make a phone call to his uncle in Toronto.

For the uncle, dealing with his nephew’s dilemma hit just as his own mother died suddenly in Sri Lanka. After a trip home to bury her, he had to figure out what he could do for his nephew. He made contact with Mark, who was on his way to Ghana in May.

While in Accra, Mark arranged for a Canadian to look in on the boy and for lodging in a private home where 20 boys are boarded.

By July ORAT, Prince of Peace and the uncle were ready to submit a private refugee sponsorship application to the CIC, and said under the ministry’s OP 5 regulations the boy was in “urgent need of protection.” The Toronto office indicated it seemed a clear case for urgent protection, but it is at the discretion of the local office.

With that encouragement the uncle was on a plane to Accra three weeks later, expecting to come home with his nephew.

In Accra the uncle was turned away when he asked to meet with the visa officer. Only after pleading with the high commission counsellor was he allowed to meet with her. She claimed her office had not received the full sponsorship application and could do nothing until she had consulted with another consulate officer who was on vacation, and that a medical exam would take weeks to complete.

Once the uncle had the medical exam completed in a day, the visa officer wanted to interview the boy alone, but couldn’t because no interpreter was available. The uncle found a Tamil-speaking nun that same day.

Rather than proceed with the interview, the visa officer said she would not consider the case urgent because the boy had been living alone in Accra for several months without incident, and because “urgent need of protection” cases are normally referred by the UNHCR.

The Accra high commission takes up to 37 months to process a privately sponsored refugee. It processes about 20 cases a year.

The office of Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney said the Minister could not comment on the case because of privacy laws. A CIC spokesperson said urgent protection cases could take “weeks to months.”

“CIC places particular importance on reuniting separated minor refugees with their parents or legal guardians, if possible, or with another family member in Canada,” said CIC media relations officer Madona Mokbel in an e-mail. “This policy, called the Guardianship Protocol, is based on the concept of the best interests of the child, something that must be determined on a case-by-case basis.”

Mark cannot understand how the Guardianship Protocol hasn’t resulted in the boy being put onto a plane to Toronto weeks ago.

“It’s just ignorance. It’s just lack of interest,” said Mark.

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