Until he was almost two and a half, Alpha Ochigbo’s whole world was the inside of the immigration detention facility on Rexdale Blvd. in Toronto.
He had lived there with his mother since birth. The detention centre, a converted hotel near Pearson International Airport, is a medium-security prison somewhat adapted to family life. Its walls were the walls of Alpha’s life, and its ways were only the ones he knew: locked doors, body searches, boredom and short periods outside in a tiny playground boxed in by two towering fences topped with glittering coils of razor wire.
Outside, traffic rumbled by on the busy road, heard but never seen. Other children would come and go, but not him.
Hundreds of children pass through Canada’s immigration detention system every year — few of them for as long as Alpha.
“Immigration Holding Centres resemble medium-security prisons, with significant restrictions on privacy and liberty, inadequate access to education, insufficient recreational opportunities and poor nutrition.”
Alpha’s mother, Glory Ochigbo (also known as Glory Anawa) arrived in Canada in February of 2013 two months pregnant with Alpha. Originally from Cameroon, she had a false British passport and a confusing history involving a refugee application in Finland. Detained on arrival, she made, then withdrew an asylum application, and was ordered deported.
In the end, Glory stayed in Canada for the better part of three years before being deported to Cameroon last November. Most of it was spent raising Alpha in the detention facility.
(We asked her for her side of the story, but didn’t hear back.)
At a series of monthly detention hearings at which Glory’s release into the community was considered, the federal Immigration and Refugee Board ruled that she was unlikely to appear for deportation if released, that if her detention “has now become lengthy” it was her fault for not being more co-operative in tracking down documents in Africa, and that Alpha was irrelevant.
“I’m not here to consider the best interests of the child,” IRB official Iris Kohler said at a hearing in May of 2014, when Alpha was nine months old.
That September, when Alpha was one, Glory’s lawyer, Swathi Sekhar, asked the hearing to consider his interests in deciding whether to release his mother, something they were not legally required to do at the time. Alpha’s immunizations weren’t up to date because his mother wasn’t allowed to leave the facility, she pointed out.
“He does not have to remain in detention,” replied Christopher Marcinkiewicz, the IRB official running the hearing.
Although Alpha was locked in the facility, as a Canadian citizen in theory he wasn’t detained — he was just living with someone who was. Since his detention was not a thing that existed, it was not a thing that had to be discussed.
“I understand it may be a difficult choice for you to turn him over to Children’s Aid Society or someone to look after him but he is not in detention, he is accompanying you here as a visitor,” Marcinkiewicz said.
A court decision in August softened this somewhat — a detention hearing can now consider whether a detained parent’s perception of the child’s best interests makes them less of a flight risk, or more likely to comply with release conditions.
“We brought forward this litigation,” explains Jane Stewart, a lawyer at Justice for Children and Youth, a Toronto-based legal clinic. “Ultimately we were able to clarify the state of the law — that this is a factor that can be considered by the Immigration Division, and ought to be, in order to consider the long-term detention of the detained parent and their child.”
“The real problem is that these parents are being placed in the impossible position of having to decide whether their children are going to remain in detention with them or whether they would be placed in the care of the Children’s Aid Society, both of which have well-documented, extremely serious impacts on children’s mental and emotional health,” Stewart says.
Justice for Children and Youth was involved with the case of a nine-year-old Togolese-Canadian girl who spent over a year in the Toronto facility, going to a local school every day.
“We negotiated with CBSA this arrangement where volunteers would pick her up in the morning and take her to school and pick her up in the afternoon and return her to immigration holding.”
Eventually, they arranged for a school bus to come to the detention facility. The bus picked her up first and dropped her off last, so her classmates wouldn’t know that for all practical purposes she lived in a medium-security prison.
“That was the hope, that she would be able to attend school without this very personal, private information about her family situation being disclosed in a school environment,” Stewart says.
WATCH: The federal government announced Monday it is investing $138 million to improve inadequate immigration detention facilities in Vancouver and Laval. Global’s Navneet Pall reports.
Canada has two purpose-built immigration detention centres, in Toronto and Laval, Que. Immigration detainees are also held in provincial jails, mainly in Ontario at the Central East Correctional Centre, a maximum-security jail in Lindsay, Ont. Some have criminal backgrounds, while others do not.
In the fiscal year 2014-15, 232 children spent at least some time in Canadian immigration detention, the report says. Most were foreign citizens who were formally detained, but 71 of them were Canadian citizens, like Alpha, confined with their parents in the facility. Children in this second group spent an average of 29 days in detention. (They weren’t systematically counted until recently, since they didn’t count as detainees.)
“Children and families are subject to constant surveillance, frequent searches, and restricted mobility within the facility. Detainees, including children, are subject to body searches each time they leave and re-enter the building, and they may only move between different sections of the IHC if escorted by a guard.”
Data released to Global News under access-to-information laws show at least 12 people under 18 with detention periods of over 100 days. (This doesn’t include Canadian children staying with their detained foreign-born parents.)
They include a six-year-old French girl detained for 281 days and a one-year old American girl detained for 142 days, both at the Toronto facility.
In May, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale told a Senate committee that he had asked officials to “seek to avoid detention of children altogether,” adding that “it’s not quite as simple as it seems.”
WATCH: MacDonald Scott is the immigration consultant for Michael Mvogo, an African man who’s been held in detention in Canada for more than eight years. Authorities say they can’t release Mvogo because they cannot confirm his identity, and no country has agreed to accept him.
Unaccompanied minors are caught in a cruel double-bind, the report says: CBSA policy says that they shouldn’t be locked up with adults, so they’re placed in solitary confinement instead.
Two 16-year-old boys spent time in solitary confinement at the Toronto holding centre this year, the report says.
“International law resolutely prohibits solitary confinement of children,” the report charges.
Solitary confinement is bad for adults’ mental health, but “the consequences are particularly detrimental for children, who experience time in solitary confinement differently from adults: a few days may feel like several weeks.”
“Sensory deprivation and social isolation have a profound impact on children’s brain development.”
The CBSA did not respond to a request for comment on their solitary confinement practices.
Even short periods in detention facilities seriously harm children’s mental health:
“Parents reported that, while in detention, their children became aggressive and commonly exhibited symptoms of separation anxiety and depression, as well as difficulty sleeping and loss of appetite. Following release from detention, children continued to experience emotional distress for months, including separation anxiety, selective mutism, sleep difficulties and post-traumatic symptoms.”
Two boys profiled in the report spent what is described as a “brief period of detention” at the Toronto centre when they were five and six, respectively.
The experience haunted them for years:
The report calls on the federal government to “eliminate child detention,” change the law to allow for taking a child’s interests into account when making detention decisions that affect them, and keeping track of migrants in the community instead of incarcerating them.