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The Canada Border Services Agency holds people who are considered a flight risk or a danger to the public, and those whose identities cannot be confirmed.Darren Calabrese/The Canadian Press

The Liberal government has changed course and lifted a deportation order for a 16-year-old Syrian boy who was recently detained under Canada's immigration laws.

The controversial case has highlighted the use of detention for foreign national children. It is supposed to be used as a last resort, but many critics have said it should be shelved.

The Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) cancelled the boy's deportation, which was scheduled for Feb. 25, on Thursday, according to the boy's lawyer, Aviva Basman, of the Refugee Law Office in Toronto. Ms. Basman also confirmed that Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Minister John McCallum granted the boy first-stage approval for permanent residence on humanitarian and compassionate grounds, to be followed by another stage background checks. The boy is being referred to as "Mohammed" for safety reasons.

"We've had some great news. Mohammed's removal was cancelled. The minister has approved him for permanent residence on humanitarian and compassionate grounds," Ms. Basman said in an e-mail to The Globe and Mail.

Mohammed was detained in isolation for three weeks in Toronto last month after attempting to claim refugee status at the Canada-U.S. border.

The Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) can hold people, including children, who are a flight risk, pose a threat to public safety or whose identities cannot be confirmed. However, the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act says that "a minor child shall be detained only as a measure of last resort."

The CBSA must find alternatives to detention for children, the Red Cross said in its 2013-14 confidential inspection report conducted for the government, obtained by The Globe through the Access to Information Act. Alternatives to detention allow asylum seekers, refugees and migrants to reside in the community while their status is being resolved or while awaiting deportation, the report stated.

The CBSA said that while there were no children in detention under Canada's immigration laws as of last Friday, 16 foreign national children have been detained at some point since November at one of the country's three immigration holding centres in Toronto, Vancouver or Laval, Que.

Mohammed was among those detained children, said Ms. Basman, who is representing the boy. Unlike most Syrian refugees arriving in Canada, he did not come through the federal government's Syrian refugee resettlement plan, which prescreens newcomers.

Mohammed was living with his parents in Egypt after fleeing Syria when he turned 16, and Egyptian authorities cancelled his residency permit. Facing deportation to Syria, Mohammed's parents used visitor visas to get him into the United States, with plans of heading to Canada from there.

On Jan. 8, Mohammed arrived at the Fort Erie, Ont., border crossing alone and tried to make a refugee claim in Canada. He was immediately taken into custody and detained in isolation for three weeks at the Toronto Immigration Holding Centre. His parents did not discover that he was detained until after they had returned to Egypt on Jan. 9.

"Under Canadian law, one could say that it was lawful, but … to keep a 16-year-old in isolation for three weeks raises concerns about human rights, international law concerns as well," Ms. Basman said.

The experience was traumatic for Mohammed, she said. "He was by himself all the time. He was allowed outside for short periods of time – I think something like half an hour a day. And he became quite upset. He became depressed, anxious," she said. "At one point, he stopped eating."

Mohammed was released on Jan. 29 after the Refugee Law Office intervened in his case, and he is now staying at Romero House, a refugee shelter in Toronto. Ms. Basman and her team have filed a Federal Court challenge to the border officials' decision to deny him access to a refugee claim, but they have not yet decided if they will pursue the case after the minister's decision to cancel Mohammed's deportation order and grant him permanent residency.

Foreign national children can also be de facto detained in provincial jails and immigration holding centres. These children are either Canadian citizens because they were born in Canada, or not formally part of the detention order, but they stay with their detained parents, who do not want to give them up to child-protection services. According to the CBSA, 28 foreign national children and nine Canadian citizen children accompanied parents in immigration holding centres at some point since November. It's unclear how many of those children are currently with their parents in detention.

The CBSA says it has seen 1,699 new detentions since the Liberals took office on Nov. 4, and as of last Friday, 457 people were still detained in immigration holding centres or provincial jails.

In an e-mail, Syed Hussan of the refugee advocate group No One Is Illegal-Toronto said he has dealt with 10 new detention cases in Toronto since the Liberals formed a government. And Jenny Jeanes, detention program co-ordinator with Action Réfugiés Montréal, said new cases have also come across her desk since November.

"We have a program to provide support to people in detention and I continue to go through that program twice a week to the Laval immigration holding centre, where I provide support to people who are detained and have been detained, many of them since November," Ms. Jeanes said.

Immigrant and refugee organizations are calling on Ottawa to reform the detention policy. In a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau last year, the Canadian Council for Refugees asked that immigration detention be "reduced to a minimum."

The End Immigration Detention Network also says it will soon be sending letters to Mr. Trudeau, Mr. McCallum and Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale outlining its demands for change, including an end to both the current indefinite detention period for immigration detainees and the use of provincial jails for those detentions.

While Mr. Goodale's office did not specifically say whether the government will consider changing the detention policy, his office did emphasize that CBSA officers detain only when necessary after alternatives to detention are considered, and aim to safeguard the health, well-being and safety of detainees.

"The agency strives to treat all people with the utmost respect and sensitivity in keeping with its core values and has national detention procedures in place that adhere to Canadian law."

Editor's note: A Friday news story on the lifting of a deportation order for a Syrian youth in Canada incorrectly said Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Minister John McCallum cancelled the boy's deportation. In fact, it was the Canada Border Services Agency which cancelled the deportation order. Also the permanent residence grant is just the first stage in the process and requires another stage of background checks.