Since October, more than 45,000 unaccompanied children have fled Central America and made their way to the United States. The unaccompanied children who have crossed into the U.S. and any who follow remain at risk. They need a safe place to live and other basic services while their asylum claims are under review. This "actual humanitarian crisis," as President Obama called it, has overwhelmed government-run shelters. Congress is still debating whether to authorize additional emergency funds and how to handle asylum claims. Meanwhile, some local authorities oppose bringing these children into their communities.
In doing so, the U.S. would be asking Canada to accept a moral obligation even if it does not have an immediate legal reason to do so. These children should not be summarily deported as many will have potential claims to refugee or some other form of protection status. But it will take time to sort out legal status, and each child will need to live in a safe place while he or she waits. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) found that many of the children "may face harm if returned home" after citing torture, persecution and violence among their reasons for leaving. It is morally unacceptable to return them to a situation that is so dangerous that they took horrendous risks to arrive unaccompanied in the U.S. The immorality of the situation would only be compounded if each child was denied the chance to make his or her case and have their claims given full consideration in the U.S. or potentially Canada.
Canadians have a history of advocating for those displaced by violence. According to UNHCR, Canada ranked third in the world in the resettlement of refugees in 2012, and it took in over 600 of the "Lost Boys and Girls" displaced by the Sudanese civil war in the early 2000s. The Canadian government developed a unique public-private partnership to settle over 40,000 Vietnamese "boat people" in 1979-1980; and even as Canada initially shut out Jews fleeing Nazi-occupied Europe, 8,000 children escaped the German bombing campaign during World War II through the British Child Guest program which brought them to Canada.
A new program to provide temporary asylum would also be in line with Canada's tradition of taking the initiative when it comes to intergovernmental cooperation. Canadians helped invent peacekeeping and spearheaded the international ban on landmines and the establishment of an international court to hold accountable the perpetrators of the worst human rights violations. The U.S. and Canada have worked together bilaterally and multilaterally to protect our common border, fight terrorism, contain epidemics, promote sustainable development and stabilize financial markets.
We know the rapid development of even a temporary asylum program will not be easy. The federal and provincial governments would have to coordinate and mobilize resources, especially those agencies responsible for child and family services. Canada would also need to conduct health screenings and immunizations and line up foster families, as is being attempted in parts of the United States. Finally, U.S. and Canadian officials will have to coordinate the initial screening of children to avoid sending children to Canada who have a family member living in the U.S. Indeed, Canada and the U.S. must be careful not to repeat the mistakes of earlier Canadian programs such as the War Guest program, which sometimes split up siblings or left children with foster parents who exploited or neglected them.
Nor will the program emerge if left to governments alone. A transnational campaign made up of activists from the U.S. and Canada is necessary to push governments into action. The role of civil society organizations was critical to past programs: Operation Lifeline was central to protecting the boat people and Rotary Club to British Child Guests. In this instance, Canadian groups should collaborate with their American counterparts who have already mobilized in response to the crisis. After all, when it comes to asylum policy, political will is not just an obstacle in the U.S., and many provinces will be reluctant to participate given ongoing struggles to reduce child poverty rates. But with enough will, it should be possible to tackle both problems.
In the long run, the root causes of displacement must be addressed and the U.S. needs comprehensive immigration reform. Until then, Canadians and Americans should work together to ensure the safety and welfare of these children.
Schroeder, a native of Vancouver, is professorial lecturer and director of the Global Governance, Politics and Security Program at the School of International Service at American University in Washington.