Upholding the Mental Health Rights of Refugee Children and Youth

This blog post was guest written by Sierra Sumner. Sierra was awarded the Francine and Gerison Lansdown Student Essay Prize through the Landon Pearson Centre for the Study of Childhood and Children’s Rights in January 2022. To support children and youths’ right to be heard, Families Canada asked Sierra to adapt her award-winning essay into a blog on how the UNCRC’s four guiding principles can inform service providers’ practice.   


Canada is currently the world leader in the resettlement of refugees. In 2019, Canada provided 30,082 refugees with the opportunity to build a new life (UNHCR, 2021). Adapting to a new environment while attempting to cope with the loss and grief of leaving one’s home land as well as the experience of pre-migration trauma can impact the mental health of young refugees in many ways.  

The UNCRC is an international agreement that recognizes the specific rights every child should be afforded (UNICEF Canada, 2022). Canada ratified the UNCRC in 1991 which means it is our responsibility to strive to fulfill, protect and ensure the rights of all children within the country, including refugees.  

The UNCRC is composed of four guiding principles. These include non-discrimination, the best interests of the children, the right to life, survival and development as well as respect for the views of the child (UNICEF, 2019). It is important that service providers are aware of the four guiding principles and how they can inform their practice to ensure adequate support in regard to the mental health of refugee children and youth. 

The following research informed suggestions may be useful when working with young refugees and their families to support their mental health: 

1. Non-Discrimination (Article 2)“the convention applies to every child without discrimination” (UNCRC, 1989) 

Canada must fulfill the right to health services without discrimination that may be based on the child’s race, ethnicity or language. This right is evident through the Center for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) Immigrant and Refugee Mental Health Project which offers online training and resources to service professionals working with immigrants and refugees. 

2. The Best Interests of the Child (Article 3) – “the best interest of the child must be a top priority in all decisions and actions that affect children” (UNCRC, 1989) 

The school environment is a space that many refugee children interact with shortly after they arrive in Canada. It is important to ensure that young refugees and their families are connected to resources within the school and their local community that will provide children with an opportunity to express their needs. 

3. The Right to Life, Survival and Development (Article 6)“every child has the right to life. Governments must do all they can to ensure that children survive and develop to their full potential” (UNCRC, 1989) 

There are various barriers that influence refugee children’s access to health services including a lack of awareness of mental health programs as well as barriers posed by the settlement experience (Hadfield et al., 2017). It is important to promote an awareness of the health programs that Canada offers to refugees and immigrants, such as the Interim Federal Health Program. Racism is a social determinant of health that has a profound impact on the health status of children. It is important to empower marginalized groups by creating projects at the community level that will encourage the sharing of culture, ethnicity and traditions in an attempt to eliminate hardships caused by racism.

4. Respect for the Views of the Child (Article 12) – “every child has the right to express their views, feelings and wishes in all matters affecting them, and to have their views considered and taken seriously” (UNCRC, 1989) 

It is important to provide children with a space to participate in meaningful activities that will encourage them to express their voice and feelings. It may be helpful as a practitioner to take a step back to listen and allow the child to guide the conversation as their voices are essential in shaping successful strategies to promote positive mental health. 

As a global role model for successful migration management, it is Canada’s responsibility as well as those working with children and youth to strive to uphold the rights of young refugees in an effort to best support their mental health needs.  

Contributor: Sierra Sumner, Fourth-year Undergraduate Student, Trent University