As thousands of Syrian refugees were being flown to Canada and greeted by cheering crowds at airports across the country, one boy who tried to claim asylum on his own at the border was denied entry and held in solitary confinement in a Toronto immigration detention center. Now, the government is set to deport him back to the US, which means he could end up back in war-torn Syrian.
The case of 16-year-old Mohammed, who was kept in a room with barred windows for three weeks in January, is believed to be the first of its kind in Canada and highlights ongoing concerns with the country's immigration detention regime.
Mohammed, who is using a pseudonym for safety concerns, wasn't allowed to talk to his family, and was put in touch with a lawyer after two weeks. He was never told exactly why he was held this way or when he'd get out, and the uncertainty made him so depressed he refused to eat, and had trouble sleeping.
"I don't sleep good. I dream," Mohammed told CBC News this week about his time in solitary confinement. "Three weeks in detention, I'm feeling sad, and I cry all the time. The room, the iron on the windows, I'm afraid."
Mohammed and his parents fled from their home in Syria after the civil conflict broke out in 2012 to Egypt, where they got temporary residency permits. However, Mohammed's permit expired when he turned 16, and he faced deportation back to Syria, where the government would force him to serve in the army — a perilous prospect in the chaotic region.
This terrified the family, who quickly obtained visitor visas to the US, and flew there last month. The plan was for Mohammed to get to the Canadian border on his own, so he could claim asylum and be reunited with his cousins who had already claimed refugee status and were living outside of Toronto. In their eyes, Canada would be a safe haven for him, especially as the immigration department had shown its willingness to help Syrian refugees by pledging to welcome 25,000 into the country by next month.
But Mohammed was detained because, under the Canada-US Safe Third Country Agreement, Canada does not accept refugee claimants from abroad who come through the US first, and vice versa. That agreement specifically allows unaccompanied minors to come into Canada from the US — yet when Mohammed arrived at the border near Fort Erie, Ontario, the guards immediately detained him, thinking he could return to parents in the US, even though they had already flown back to Egypt just hours before.
Mohammed was released from the detention center on January 29 and has been living in a refugee shelter in Toronto ever since, but the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) has served with him notice that he will be deported back to the US next week. There, Mohammed could be placed in another detention center or homeless shelter, or be sent back to Syria.
"Given the treatment he has already experienced in Canada, which has been upsetting to many and has traumatized him, we think this case is the exact kind of case that cries out for the minister's intervention," Mohammed's lawyer Aviva Basman, of Toronto's Refugee Law Office, told VICE News.
His lawyers have launched federal court proceedings to have Mohammed's removal reversed and have formally petitioned Canada's immigration minister, John McCallum, to intervene in the case, but the ministry hasn't responded to them.
"If you're going to detain a child, and detention of children is a matter of last resort according to our laws here, then I can't think of why they wouldn't be in the family wing [where mothers with children are held]," Basman said. "A child being kept in isolation ... is contrary to international law," she said.
In the weeks since his release, those working at the shelter, Romero House, say Mohammed's mood has improved drastically.
"He's doing remarkably well. But he's still scared," said Hannah Deloughery, an intern at Romero House who works closely with Mohammed, who was asleep in his room. "He still has a lot of anxiety, but he also has moments and days of acting like a normal 16-year-old."
On the day Mohammed received his deportation order, Deloughery says her colleagues were on their way to pick up a Syrian refugee family the shelter had successfully sponsored to bring to Canada from the Middle East. Mohammed has been helping the family resettle into a new home, translates for them, and makes them feel welcome in a country that has rejected him.
"It's been a good distraction for him, and when he's with them, he lightens up, he eats, he makes jokes," Deloughery added. "He's still fearful of being deported. We don't know what will happen, but all we can do is be by his side. And that's what we're doing."
A recent study on the mental health of children held in Canadian immigration detention centers found that when children are detained, even if for a short period of time, they experience trauma, including PTSD, that can last long after they are released from detention. From 2005 to last March, an estimated 4,392 children were held in one of the three immigration detention centers in Canada. However, legal experts say this number could be two or three times higher as the Canadian government does not keep track of certain children who are detained, including Canadian citizens, who are viewed as "guests" of their migrant parents.
And unlike the US and the UK, there's no limit on how long any migrants — including children — can be held in detention in Canada. One woman and her baby, a son who was born in Canada in 2013, were held in the Toronto detention center for more than two years before they were deported.
Audrey Macklin, chair of the international human rights law program at the University of Toronto, told VICE News she was shocked to learn about Mohammed's case and said it highlights a broken immigration system that should examine alternatives to immigration detention.
"We have a special obligation to refugees who are children and to take somebody who is a child, to gratuitously put them in detention in isolation, in circumstances that will cause significant distress and trauma, seems antithetical to the principles we claim to be guided by," Macklin said.
CBSA refused to comment on Mohammed's case or answer direct questions from VICE News about the solitary confinement of migrants and children in detention centers. Spokesperson Travis O'Brien wrote in an email to VICE News that "[w]hen a child is held, it will be for the shortest time possible" and that "in a situation where an individual cannot suitably be placed in the family wing ... and where they may not also be placed in any of the adult male units (for their own safety and security), the CBSA will take additional measures to ensure their comfort by placing them in private living quarters."
Diane Laursen, a spokesperson for Canada's immigration minister, wouldn't comment on the use of isolation in the detention centers, but said Mohammed's is "an unfortunate situation that has been brought to our attention."
"Following the Federal Court decision we will look to ensure that all options have been considered," Laursen added.
Follow Rachel Browne on Twitter: @rp_browne