7 facts about immigration detention in Canada

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By Andrea Morales Caceres

Published in The Ploughshares Monitor Volume 40 Issue 3 Autumn 2019

Conditions in immigration detention centres in the United States have sparked significant attention around the world in the last few months. But many Canadians are unaware of our own country’s immigration detention system. Thousands of people are detained every year in Canada—8,355 in fiscal year (FY) 2017-2018, according to the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA).

Here are seven more facts that everyone in Canada should know:

1 Detainees are held in Immigration Holding Centres and, sometimes, provincial jails.

The CBSA currently oversees three Immigration Holding Centres—in Toronto, Vancouver, and Laval, Quebec. The Vancouver centre can only accommodate detentions of 48 hours or less, while the other two can handle longer stays.

Immigration Holding Centres resemble correctional facilities and are classified as medium-security. Detainees are under constant surveillance, must follow a strict daily schedule, are escorted by guards when moving between wings, and must endure body searches when entering or leaving the facility. Generally, men are held in one section, while women and children reside in another. This means that families are broken up, with members often able to see each other for only a short time each day.

More than a quarter of detainees in FY2017-2018 were housed in other facilities, usually provincial jails. According to the Global Detention Project, Canada is one of the few industrialized countries in the world (along with the United States) to use correctional facilities for immigration detentions.

2 Most detainees are not dangerous.

According to Canada’s Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, foreign nationals and permanent residents can be detained if CBSA officers believe that they are unlikely to appear at immigration proceedings, if they are unable to establish their identities to the satisfaction of CBSA officers, or if they are deemed a danger to the public. However, CBSA statistics show that very few detainees are held because they threaten public safety. In fact, about 94 per cent of people were detained in FY2017-2018 because they could not establish their identities, were considered flight risks, or were wanted for further examination.

3 Some children are detained.

Canadian law sees the detention of minors as a measure of last resort. But children who are foreign nationals, permanent residents, and even Canadian citizens are detained—there were 151 in FY2017-2018, including seven unaccompanied minors.
Before detentions of minors or of individuals whose detentions would significantly impact minors, CBSA must conduct “best interests of the child” assessments. These assessments don’t keep all children out of facilities. To keep families together, children are allowed to accompany parents in detention. In FY 2017-2018, 73 children were housed in detention facilities with their parents.

According to Invisible Citizens: Canadian Children in Immigration Detention, a 2017 report out of the University of Toronto Faculty of Law, children in holding centres lose weight, have trouble sleeping, have little access to reliable schooling, and receive insufficient medical attention.

4 Detention adversely affects the mental health of detainees.

A 2013 study by Janet Cleveland and Cécile Rousseau, published in the journal Psychiatry, compared “psychiatric symptoms” in 122 detained asylum seekers with those of 66 “non-detained adult asylum seekers in Montreal and Toronto.” It found that even during relatively short periods of detention, detainees developed psychiatric symptoms consistent with depression and PTSD at a much higher rate than their non-detained counterparts.

5 A legal loophole can lead to long-term or indefinite detention.

In FY2017-2018, the average detention lasted 14.3 days.

The Immigration Division must review reasons for detention within 48 hours of detention. The next hearing must occur within seven days of the first review. Further reviews must be conducted every 30 days. But no law or government policy limits the length of time a migrant can be detained.

Some people have been detained for years, as Brendan Kennedy reported in The Toronto Star in 2017. One reason for long detentions relates to difficulties in deporting migrants. As Emerald Bensadoun explains in a July 2019 Huffington Post article, to deport someone to another country, Canada must have an agreement with the receiving country. Meeting the conditions of any agreement can be complicated when the identity of the individual cannot be verified or the country of deportation doesn’t want to issue travel documents.

According to a 2014 report by Syed Hussan of the advocacy group No One Is Illegal, after six months of detention, the chances of release drop to about one per cent.

6 CBSA has no external oversight body.

CBSA officers “carry out arrests, detentions and removals of individuals who are not permitted in Canada.” But how CBSA carries out its mandate has been the subject of research and complaint.

CBSA is the only Canadian public safety agency that has no external oversight body. As the Global Detention Project noted in 2018, “The lack of independent national and international oversight bodies significantly contributes to the culture of secrecy surrounding the Canadian immigration detention system.” Recent efforts to set up an oversight body died in the Senate.

Between 2000 and 2018, at least 16 people died in the Canadian immigration detention system.

7 Steps are being taken to improve Canada’s detention system, but only time will tell if they are enough.

In 2017, the CBSA revealed its National Immigration Detention Framework, “to create a better, fairer immigration detention system.” Its pillars: partnerships, alternatives to detention, mental health, and transparency. A 2019 Global News report did indicate a steady decline in the number of detained minors in the last few years.
The Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada conducted an external audit of long-term detention in 2017-2018. It found that the detention system relied on inconsistent information to make decisions, showed uneven levels of legal representation across the country, and discriminated against detainees with mental illness. The audit included a series of recommendations. In July 2018, the Board officially agreed with the recommendations and issued a Management Response and Action Plan.
Some progress has been made, but much remains to be done. Continued vigilance by journalists and civil society remains critical.

Andrea Morales Caceres, a Master’s student at the University of Toronto, was the 2019 Peace and Human Security Intern at Project Ploughshares.

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