Canada’s Unwanted: Non-citizens paid to leave, jailed without charge, die in secret

Pam Shiraldini holds a photograph of her husband, Masoud Hajivand, shortly before a rally in Toronto's Dundas Square to protest his impending deportation to Iran. Liam Maloney for Global News

Canada is built on generations of multifarious foreigners. But its treatment of those without the imprimatur – or protection – of citizenship remains troubling.

As a country we’ve crafted a narrative of welcoming persecuted persons. A federal government website, “A History of Refuge,” showcases centuries of asylum-seekers, from Quakers to Rwandans, and Canada’s Nansen Refugee Award in 1986.

And we rely more than ever not only on immigrants, but on people who leave their home countries to work here for short periods of time under strict restrictions and with limited rights.

But thousands of non-citizens deemed undesirable find a very different Canada than that advertised.

The federal government has taken steps to discourage so-called “bogus” refugees: Former Immigration and Refugee Minister Jason Kenney – who took particular issue with Roma refugee claimants – actually flew to Hungary to tell people not to bother coming to Canada to file refugee claims.

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Canada has expedited refusal for claimants from certain countries and cut off health care for claimants in limbo, a policy that ends up costing taxpayers more when people with untreated illnesses end up in ER, and which was condemned by court ruling as “cruel and unusual,” forcing Ottawa to reluctantly reinstate the cuts, pending an appeal.

Refugee claim skepticism or no, alleged immigrant status violations notwithstanding, Canada has international obligations to non-citizens on its soil.

These include the right to due process, access to legal counsel and freedom from arbitrary detention.

We wanted to find out how Canada treats those it doesn’t want – or those whose fate and right to be in this country remain undecided.

We found systems rife with arbitrary opacity and questionable practices.

Canada’s detention practices violate multiple guidelines issued by the UN High Commission on refugees. (See below for a partial list)

This Global News investigation illustrates multiple questionable practices in Canada’s treatment of asylum-seekers and immigration detainees.

We detain people indefinitely in jails on no charge – often with limited access to family, legal counsel and third-party monitoring agencies.

Graphic by Janet Cordahi
Graphic by Janet Cordahi.

And the 220-odd people in immigrant detention in Ontario jails lack even the most basic check on their wellbeing: The Canadian Red Cross has been prevented from ensuring their detention’s in line with international norms and human rights.

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For years, documents obtained by Global News show, the Red Cross has demanded access to immigrant detainees in Ontario jails.

And for years, it has been rebuffed.

The Ontario government says it is negotiating an agreement with the Red Cross that would allow inspectors into its jails to ensure detainees’ rights are being respected. (The Red Cross would not comment)

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has slammed Iran’s human rights record as “appalling,” has said the state “scares me.”

But Canada, under both this government and the previous one, deports dozens of people to that country annually – 423 in since 2004, according to Canada Border Services Agency.

Slide from a government of Canada website underscores Canada’s commitment to Iranian refugees.
Slide from a government of Canada website underscores Canada’s commitment to Iranian refugees.

Canada’s Border Services Agency is responsible for these people while they’re detained – in a CBSA facility or otherwise.

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Yet documents and coroner’s inquests examined by Global News reveal the federal agency has failed to learn from its own mistakes, resulting in deaths that could potentially have been prevented through something as simple as the sharing of vital medical information about detainees as they’re transferred from CBSA facilities to courts to provincial jails.

CBSA says it has introduced medical forms for detainees in accordance with coroner’s recommendations. But miscommunication regarding detainee medical history continues to play a role in deaths, subsequent inquests have found.

Refugee claimants worried about being incarcerated indefinitely on no charges may get an offer of cash and a plane ticket if they leave the country – as long as they don’t exercise their rights to appeal.

Canada has paid more than 3,600 people thousands of dollars each – totalling $7.5 million in the past two years – to leave the country.

Most of these people are Roma, fleeing central European countries that are ostensibly safe and democratic but where discrimination against Roma persons has been ongoing for centuries and continues today, rights groups find.

The federal government argues this program is a preferable, kinder alternative to simply deporting people once they’ve exhausted their asylum appeals.

But lawyers argue it’s effectively “a bribe;” a way of encouraging vulnerable people to abandon claims that could be successful.

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The question, in our mind, is not whether these would-be refugees are “bogus” or legitimate; rather, it’s whether Canada’s treatment of vulnerable individuals respects their humanity and international norms.

In multiple cases, this investigation finds, it does neither.

WATCH: Jennifer Tryon reports on Canada’s questionable practices when it comes to non-citizens.

UNHCR detention guidelines Canada does not follow:

  • The guidelines state “the use of prisons, jails and facilities designed or operated as prisons or jails should be avoided. If asylum-seekers are held in such facilities, they should be separated from the general prison population. Criminal standards (such as wearing prisoner uniforms or shackling) are not appropriate.”
  • Frequent transfer from one detention facility to another should be avoided.
  • All staff working with detainees “should receive proper training, including in relation to asylum, sexual and gender-based violence, the identification of the symptoms of trauma and/or stress and refugee and human rights standards relating to detention.”
  • Detention must be considered an “exceptional measure.”
  • Should not be arbitrary or indefinite.
  • Must be “subject to independent monitoring and inspection.”
  • People in detention must have access to asylum procedures, legal counsel and third-party monitoring agencies – to meet in private if they choose.

Purposes not justifying detention:

  • As penalty for illegal entry
  • As deterrent to seeking asylum
  • On grounds of expulsion while asylum proceedings are ongoing


Canada’s non-citizens paid to leave, jailed without charge, die in secret

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Jailed with no charge, no sentence, no oversight

Canada pays thousands of Roma to abandon refugee appeals, leave country

Deaths in detention: CBSA’s fatal failure to learn from its mistakes

READ: UNHCR guidelines on treatment of asylum-seekers

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Tell us your story: Do you have experience as a refugee or immigration detainee in Canada? We’d love to hear it. 

Note: We may publish your submission in future stories

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