Children adrift

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Up to two million Syrian and Iraqi children have been orphaned by war as of Christmas 2015, having lost one or both parents to air raids, massacres, or from street fighting.

But war orphans will not specifically be included in the 25,000 Syrian war refugees whom the government aims to bring to Canada by Feb. 29 next year. Instead, Ottawa is focusing primarily on resettling whole families – parents and children – as well as vulnerable people such as LGBTQ Syrians.

“There are legal and other issues with orphans, which makes it more complex. Undoubtedly, it’d take more time – and time is one thing we don’t have very much of given our targets, so we are not focusing on orphans,” Immigration Minister John McCallum told National Observer on Dec. 23 in Ottawa.

Immigration minister John McCallum provides an update on refugees on Dec. 23 in Ottawa. (CP).

An Oct. 2007 parliamentary report warns that even identifying orphans and unaccompanied minors in need of protection can be problematic. For example, if children are forced to flee in haste from bombing raids or terror attacks, they may not carry proper documentation or proof of age.

Any refugee orphan wishing to enter Canada must provide both documentary evidence and testimony to a Canadian immigration official. If a claimant cannot convince an immigration officer that he or she is a minor, they will be treated like an adult refugee.

Orphans and otherwise parentless minors who make it to Canada and are interviewed by the Immigration and Refugee Board must be accompanied by a designated representative. This person can be a trusted friend or professional such as a social worker or lawyer.

However, even those minors who are granted refugee status in Canada cannot include parents or other family members on their application, assuming that their parents are still alive.

Once in Canada, younger refugee children under 16 typically live with foster parents, while older minors are sent to group homes, according to CBC.

“This situation is very difficult for children, and can lead to psychological problems, depression, or feelings of guilt. The exclusion of family members is justified as a means to prevent families from using their children as an anchor to secure their own resettlement. Parents of children accepted as refugees in Canada can submit a humanitarian and compassionate application to try to be resettled with their children,” states the report.

Six years later in 2013 – by which time the war in Syria was in full swing – CBC News reported that 300 unaccompanied minors were seeking refugee status in Canada every year. While some may well have lost one or both parents, others were children sent away by their parents in hopes that they would have a better life elsewhere.

Such was the case with Iraqi citizen Ahmed Mohammed, whose parents paid $20,000 to ‘agents’ to spirit him away to Canada just over two years ago, bypassing official refugee channels.

Chapter 1

Canadian policy

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Nonetheless, there is an eighty-year old historical precedent for helping orphans and unaccompanied refugees fleeing violence. In 1938-39, nearly 10,000 Jewish children left Nazi Germany for the safety of Britain in ‘Kindertransports’.

The Kindertransport story began in fall 1938 when Nazi storm troopers smashed and looted Jewish-owned shops and houses, beating up and in a few cases killing anyone who got in their way. The nationwide pogrom became known as Kristallnacht – Night of Broken Glass. It prompted the British government to ease its hitherto-strict refugee policies by allowing unaccompanied refugee children under age 17 to enter the United Kingdom on Kindertransport trains.

However, the children were only issued temporary visas and were supposed to leave Britain once the German crisis was over. It was up to private citizens to sponsor refugee children and guarantee payments for their care, education, and eventual departure from Britain.

Parents were barred from accompanying their children to Britain and in many cases were unable to support their children at all as they had already been imprisoned in concentration camps. Jewish associations organizing Kindertransports gave priority to orphans and homeless children.

All told, nearly 10,000 refugee children – of whom 7,500 were Jews – reached the safety of Britain by September 1939, when the outbreak of World War II prevented any further passage of refugees out of Nazi Germany.

Not all refugee children were orphans when they left Germany in the late 1930s. But by the time World War II ended in 1945, nearly all of them were, as their parents were among the six million Jews murdered in the Holocaust.

Nor did the Kindertransport children return to their former homes in Germany, Austria, or Czechoslovakia as planned. Instead, they either remained in Britain and took UK citizenship, or emigrated to Israel and the United States after the war ended.

Like Syrians in 2015, most surviving European Jews had no homes or families to return to, as Europe in 1945 had been devastated by both fighting and genocide, their homes and possessions confiscated, or bombed.

Eight decades later, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has identified 130,000 Syrian refugees in Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan who require permanent refuge in other countries. This category includes orphans and those who have been tortured by Syrian government or rebel forces.

Canada has so far agreed to accept 25,000 Syrian refugees, a number that will likely rise to between 35,000 – 50,000 refugees by the end of 2016, according to Immigration Minister John McCallum.

“They’ve all come under the UNHCR definition of vulnerable people so that’s a single crucial criterion and within that, our group will be largely made up of families,” said McCallum.

But the Canadian government is not arranging any Kindertransport for Syrian children.

“The short answer to that is no,” said McCallum.

But children – whether orphans or not – continue to bear the brunt of warfare in conflict zones around the world.

Chapter 2

What's at stake

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United Nations figures show that 15 conflicts have erupted or re-ignited in the past five years. These include the Middle East hotspots of Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, as well as ongoing fighting in parts of Ukraine, Pakistan, Myanmar, and Kyrgyzstan. Eight more wars are currently ongoing in the African nations of Ivory Coast, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Libya, Mali, northern Nigeria, South Sudan, and Burundi.

These wars had produced a combined total of 59.5 million refugees as of June 2015. More than half of them are children.

There is no exact figure for how many children have been orphaned by conflict worldwide, but SOS Children and the United Nations estimate that 153 million children have lost either one or both parents from war, disease, or other causes.

“It is terrifying that on the one hand there is more and more impunity for those starting conflicts, and on the other there is seeming utter inability of the international community to work together to stop wars and build and preserve peace,” said UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres in June.

A father cradles his dead child in Syria. (AP).

As war spreads across the world, so does trauma for those children caught up in it. The New Yorker interviewed Nelson Kargbo, a boy from Sierra Leone, who was already an orphan when his village was attacked. He witnessed his best friend’s mother shot to death after resisting a rebel fighter who groped her breasts. Both Kargbo and his friend were forcibly recruited as child soldiers.

He later fell sick and was abandoned on a roadside by his rebel outfit. After making his way to a refugee camp in neighbouring Guinea, Kargbo arrived in the United States as a 15-year-old refugee with his surviving family.

But like many who witness the reality of war – both soldiers and civilians – the trauma continued.

“I just tried to rehabilitate myself by doing what my friends were doing, smoking weed and drinking,” Kargbo told the New Yorker.

Unable to escape nightmares, voices in his head, or trouble with the law for a series of minor offences, Kargbo was detained by immigration officials and faced deportation back to Sierra Leone. He eventually won his appeal and was allowed to stay, but by then he was diagnosed with psychosis.

“Children are exposed to situations of terror and horror during war – experiences that may leave enduring impacts in posttraumatic stress disorder. Severe losses and disruptions in their lives lead to high rates of depression and anxiety in war-affected children. These impacts may be prolonged by exposures to further privations and violence in refugee situations,” states a Dec. 2006 Croat Medical Journal report by Joanna Santa Barbara.

In addition, war can force children to alter their entire morality, as the experience of oppression or indifference to suffering destroys their emotional ‘place’ in the world.

“They may have to change their moral structure and lie, steal, and sell sex to survive. They may have their moral structure forcibly dismantled and replaced in training to kill as part of a military force,” states Santa Barbara’s report.

However, Canada is stepping up to help traumatized children by reinstating federal healthcare for refugees, a program that was eliminated by the former Conservative government.

“These refugees in most cases come from desperately awful, unimaginable circumstances. Some of them will bear their scars of that, both in terms of physical health and mental health and so that’s one of the reasons we at the federal level reinstated the interim federal healthcare program for refugees,” McCallum told National Observer.

Initially, the restored benefits will be available to Syrians only, but McCallum indicated that they would be expanded to other refugees soon.

But McCallum said that refugee health care remained primarily a provincial responsibility, as it did for all other Canadians.

“We are working closely with our provincial counterparts,” McCallum said.