07/10/2014 11:25 EDT | Updated 09/09/2014 05:59 EDT

Orphaned South African girl stuck in Canadian citizenship limbo in B.C.

A B.C. family says Canadian immigration officials are ruining their adoptive daughter's life, after their failure to resolve her visa status left her living on her own in South Africa.

Erica Barnes, now 19, was born in South Africa, but was orphaned at aged seven after her father was murdered in a robbery. She was adopted by family friends, Canadian Vince Barnes and his British wife Ann.

The couple brought Barnes back to Canada to live in Surrey, B.C., and applied to have her granted permanent residency status. When she was 13, she wanted to visit her grandmother back in South Africa.

Barnes' adoptive mother Ann said she called Canada Immigration to see if her daughter could travel and was told it wouldn't be a problem.

But when Barnes' permanent residency card came through while she was away, "they said that because she wasn't in the country to collect her papers, she displayed no interest in becoming a Canadian," said Barnes' mother.

Barnes' adoptive mother Ann says she explained the situation but officials told her they would not grant her daughter residency status and there was no appeal process.

That meant she was barred from returning to Canada.

Barnes' adoptive father Vince says the whole family was shocked.

"It's my little girl, she's 13 years old, I mean...what is it for them to tell her she can't have a life?" he said. "They see paper, they don't see people — it ripped our family apart."

Five years in exile

Erica Barnes says she was stuck for five hellish years in South Africa, couch surfing from family to friends, at times going hungry and on the street, instead of at home in Canada with her family.

"[When I came to Canada] I didn't feel like I was walking into a new family, it just felt natural...I just knew that wherever they were, that's where I wanted to be," she said.

"If I knew going back to South Africa would have delayed things so much...It's just one of those things we had to find out the hard way."

"I couldn't even go to school because they didn't recognize me as a South African citizen either...I was sad because [in Canada] my friends are going to school with their parents and I'm stranded."

Two years ago, Barnes' adoptive mother called a Canadian embassy and spoke to another official, who informed her being adopted by a Canadian actually entitled her daughter to citizenship. 

The couple applied immediately and last August, Barnes got a one-time visa and was on the next flight home back to Canada.

Barnes' parents also received a letter from the Canadian High Commission in South Africa saying their daughter has been granted Canadian citizenship.

But Vince Barnes says, one year later, no citizenship papers have arrived.