Pedro: A Child In The Refugee System

In Canada, refugee status is the most emotional element of the immigration process. The government’s decision can mean the difference between life and death, and those being judged can only hang on to the hope that they will be allowed to remain in the country.

So in 2011 when a young Angolan refugee claimant named Pedro looked straight into the lens of a Canadian documentary film maker and said “Maybe if I die it will be a solution for everything,” it was impossible to miss the overwhelming helplessness that accompanied the news that his request to stay in Canada had just been turned down.

Firdaus Kharas was behind the camera, filming Pedro’s path in A Child Without a Country. The documentary follows the young Angolan from his arrival at Toronto’s Pearson Airport as an unaccompanied 15-year-old in 2003 through eight years of appeals and re-appeals.

Kharas recognized the desperation. “I’ve seen it so many times in my travels, and it’s almost always children because they’re so vulnerable, the ones to fall through society’s cracks,” he says. The youth’s attempts to fit into Canadian society while his case was reviewed - joining the Air Cadets, visiting a former high-school teacher, shopping at local markets - created a compassionate visual profile. But Kharas knew his story had to be balanced.

“It was so complex, so many moral dilemmas, that I felt I had to conscientiously play it straight and make a point-of-view documentary. Was he a child victim? Did the system treat him well or poorly? These are the central questions, and I tried very hard not to sway the viewer too much but to present the facts as factually as possible, and let each come to their own conclusion,” he says.

The film maker documented every step of the process to help explain how it works. This accuracy was something he learned from experience by sitting on the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada for five years during his earlier bureaucratic career. Because each year brings tens of thousands of refugee claims in Canada, officials assume each must prove the right to remain in the country. According to the Board, about 38 percent of refugee claimants are accepted each year.

Pedro’s story is not unusual for children who are transported from desperate homelands to countries like Canada in hope of finding a better life. They arrive confused and scared, which is why the Canadian system moves them into children’s-aid societies and places them in foster homes while their cases are reviewed.

On arrival they rarely have all their facts straight, and Pedro was no exception. Inconsistencies about the disappearance of his passport, the death of his political father in Angola and even about how he got to Canada, among other questions, made his case “non-credible”.

A Child Without a Country captures the young Angolan’s increasing anguish, but it also reveals his frustrated reactions to a system that he feels betrayed him. “I was an innocent thrown into the arena to fight the lions,” Pedro says on-camera.

This range of human emotion was a key for Kharas in trying to reveal the intricacies of the most contentious part Canada’s immigration process. “Maybe he was a true victim or maybe he was just trying to scam the system. He was definitely told what to do and what to say; he just mixed up his story,” Kharas says.

“(In documentary film making) I think it's harder to be balanced, especially on an issue-laden (question) like refugee status, than to be one-sided. More than anything, I hope this doc provokes debate among viewers.”

Originally an immigrant from India, Kharas grew up in a family that believed in the rights of marginalized people. At Ottawa’s Carleton University he wrote his Master’s thesis on governmental use of torture, and then worked for Canada at the United Nations and on the country’s refugee board before turning to television and film production with his Chocolate Moose Media company in 1995.

He is best known for three international animated public-service-announcement series: the HIV/AIDS awareness of Three Amigos (which won a Peabody Award), the malaria-protection education of Buzz & Bite and the anti-domestic-violence campaign of No Excuses.

His motivations have always been rooted in the plight of children, which is why Pedro’s story is so poignant for him. As refugee lawyer John McCrie explains in the documentary: “This is the first time I’ve ever heard of a child claimant being turned down on humanitarian and compassionate grounds after being refused refugee status.”

As A Child Without a Country concludes, Pedro is under a “removal order,” but his ultimate fate is unknown because of Canada’s privacy laws. He has not responded to any of Kharas’ emails.

See it for yourself

The documentary will be broadcast in English on OMNI TV in Ontario April 8 at 9 p.m., and in Alberta and British Columbia on April 15 at 9 p.m. It will be broadcast in Portuguese on OMNI in Ontario April 15 at 8 p.m.