How Canada reduced the number of children held in immigration detention

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In 2015, a baby named Alpha became the face of children living in immigration detention in Canada. Even though he was born here and, therefore, a Canadian citizen, he spent years in an immigration detention facility in Toronto with his mother as her refugee claim slouched its way through the system. 

Reports on his case came around the same time that Canadian research revealed how children held in detention, even for short periods of time, experienced negative psychological impacts that lasted well after they were released.

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Public outcry and persistent advocacy over children in detention prompted significant government policy changes within a couple years that have significantly reduced the number of children held in immigration detention in Canada and reinforced it as a measure of last resort.

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In 2014-15, there were 232 minors held in immigration detention, according to the Canada Border Services Agency, which can detain people if someone’s identity is in question, if they are suspected to be a threat to public safety, or if they’re considered a flight risk. That number has dropped every year since. The data for 2018-19 so far shows that 113 minors have been held in detention — a 51 per cent drop in less than five years. 

As thousands of migrant babies and children are being held in squalid detention facilities in the U.S. and separated from their families, experts say the Canadian experience provides a template for how the number of detained children can be reduced. Many flaws still remain in Canada’s immigration detention regime, they say, but the last few years have shown that it is possible to improve the system.

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For Rachel Kronick, a professor of psychiatry at McGill University who has researched children held in immigration detention in Canada, the detention of children for any period of time can have negative impacts on them and on the community on a broader level. Her work helped inform the Canadian response to addressing minors held in immigration detention, and she is alarmed by the ongoing situation in the U.S.

“The U.S. is setting kids up for physical and mental health problems and an inability to integrate,” Kronick told Global News. 

“They’re creating such demeaning, dehumanizing and cruel conditions for children and families that they are breaking down the social fabric not just of these communities of migrants but of the United States itself.”

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Kronick’s research on children in detention, released in 2015, was based on interviews with 20 families who were held in immigration holding centres in Toronto and Laval, Que. Her research found that many of the children had developed depressive symptoms, including anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder, while in detention. Some also developed “selective mutism” due to the climate of fear. These symptoms often continued after the children were released, the research found.

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At the time, when the Conservatives were in power, CBSA said it housed children only as a last resort but had no plans to reduce the numbers. Three years earlier, former Conservative immigration minister Jason Kenney said: “Anyone can leave immigration detention any time they want — they just have to leave Canada.”

Researchers and activists continued to slam the system they described as cruel and arbitrary through reports and demonstrations. And after the Liberal government was elected in the fall of 2015, they had a listening ear.

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But concerning activity involving detained migrant children continued. In 2016, it was revealed that a Syrian teen who crossed alone into Canada from the U.S. was held in isolation for three weeks in the Toronto immigration facility. In the end, he was allowed to stay in Canada, but advocates pointed to his case as another reason why Canada should cease detaining migrant children altogether. 

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“I heard in that period of time, at the beginning of 2016, from a number of the advocacy groups, as well as the UN High Commission for Refugees, and there were concerns about migration, refugees generally, and certainly about children,” Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale told Global News in a phone interview. “And so we went to work on that within the Canadian system.”

In November 2017, Goodale released a directive to the CBSA on “keeping children out of Canada’s immigration detention system and keeping families together.” It states that CBSA is to keep children out of detention by seeking alternatives to detention such as in-person reporting, bonds and community supervision.

The directive followed a 2016 spending promise, which included $138 million to improve the immigration detention facilities that house adults and children in Toronto, Laval and Vancouver.

Still, many advocates continue to protest the efforts as expanding the detention regime rather than ending it altogether.

“We want to end prisons, not make them more pleasant,” Sam Hoffman of Ni Frontières, Ni Prisons told the Montreal Gazette at a protest against the Laval immigration facility in February.

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Janet Cleveland is also a researcher at McGill University. She has conducted research on the psychological impacts of detention on asylum seekers. She said that she was heartened by the Canadian government’s willingness to improve the situation for minors in detention, and that it may not have occurred under a different government.

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Cleveland pointed to the U.S., which has policies in place to protect the best interests of the child, but those appear to be disregarded by the Trump administration.

“There was a period of time when the U.S. had much better policies, at least concerning children, particularly unaccompanied minors. They had a policy guideline back in the late ’90s stating they had to be held in safe and sanitary conditions,” she said. 

Children, at least, were not detained for long periods but were moved relatively quickly into the community.

“It was far from perfect. But they had been able to do that even despite very large numbers of migrants and refugee claimants arriving,” Cleveland said.

“And at the moment, it’s a deliberate choice. It’s not that they’re unable to do better.”

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Goodale would not speak to the situation in the U.S., but said that “the Canadian system is working well” and that the ultimate goal would be to reduce the number of children in detention to zero.

“In four years, we have managed to cut [the numbers] in half so if we could get to the point where it’s zero, that would be terrific,” he said. 
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Cleveland said that while the situation for children in detention in Canada has improved, she believes they should not be detained at all. And the detention of adults in immigration facilities and in provincial jails is also concerning — especially as many are held indefinitely.

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CBSA data shows that thousands of asylum seekers continue to be detained in Canada, hundreds of whom are held in provincial jails alongside convicted criminals.

And there are still no numbers on how many children living in the community in Canada are separated from their parents when they are placed under an immigration hold. This type of separation can also lead to serious psychological harms for children and families. 

We don’t have the same kinds of numbers as the U.S. but we have had a very sharp increase in refugee claimants in the last few years,”  Cleveland said. “And the detention numbers have remained very low, particularly for children. That’s a really strong argument in favour of continuing those kinds of policies.”

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