The treatment of migrants has recently been thrust into the spotlight as accounts emerge of overcrowding and unsanitary conditions in American border detention facilities. Here’s a look at how Canada deals with immigration detainees.
Immigration holding centres, sometimes jails
The Canada Border Services Agency can detain foreign nationals and permanent residents under certain conditions — including if they pose security risks or are unlikely to appear for immigration proceedings — but must first consider all reasonable alternatives. The CBSA says the physical and mental health and well-being of detainees are key considerations.
A person may be detained at a CBSA immigration holding centre in Toronto, Laval, Que., or Vancouver. In other regions, people may be held in provincial jails.
The Toronto centre can hold up to 195 detainees, while the Laval one can house up to 109. The CBSA says both provide separate accommodation for men, women and families, have outdoor recreational areas, provide daily meals, access to games, televisions and telephones, visitation areas and medical services.
The Vancouver centre is at the city’s airport and can hold up to 24 detainees for up to 48 hours. Men and women are held separately while children may be housed with their mothers. The facility has common rooms, access to games, televisions and telephones.
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The CBSA says everyone in its holding centres get three meals and two snacks per day, and special dietary needs, such as food allergies or specialized diets, are catered to.
The agency says it relies on provincial correctional facilities to hold higher-risk detainees such as those with a violent criminal background, lower-risk detainees in areas that don’t have an immigration holding centre, and those detained for more than 48 hours in the Vancouver area. It says it tries to minimize interaction between immigration and criminal detainees.
The CBSA says there were 6,609 people detained in holding centres in 2017-18, up from 4,248 a year earlier. There were 1,831 detainees held in jails last year, compared to 971 in 2016-17.
Stephanie Silverman, who is with migrant advocacy group Thinking Forward Network, says detainees have their cases reviewed at certain intervals — the first within 48 hours of detention, again after seven days, and then every 30 days until their detention is resolved.
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“It can only really be resolved through release into the community, usually on conditions, or through deportation,” says Silverman, noting there’s no limit on how long a person can be held.
“It could be 48 hours before you get out, it could be three months, or it could be five years.”
In 2017-18, the CBSA reported 3.8 per cent of detainees were held for more than 99 days, while 47.2 per cent were held for 24 hours or less. The rest were held somewhere between 25-48 hours and 40-99 days.
The CBSA estimates it costs approximately $320 per day to detain someone.
Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees, says those in immigration holding centres are afforded an adequate amount of food and water but have limited amenities.
“They’re not allowed to have internet access which makes it very difficult for them to communicate with family members or others that may be able to help them get the documents that they need,” she says, adding that detainees also have restricted access to phone calls.
The CBSA says it provides on-site access to NGOs and legal counsel at holding centres where possible, and notes that a detainee can ask to speak to a CBSA officer at any time, or ask to see legal counsel or an NGO rep.
The agency also says it has on-site medical, nursing, psychological and psychiatric care within CBSA-run facilities. Those with special needs are dealt with on a case-by-case, it says.
Detainees held in jails are subject to the same rules as inmates. If a jail goes into lockdown, detainees have to deal with the situation and it can be difficult for family and others to visit them, Dench says.
“We’re talking about people here who have not been accused of any crime, and yet they are treated according to rules that are invented and problematic in themselves for people who are accused or convicted of a crime,” she says. “(It’s) completely unfair.”
Parents decide if families stay together
Canadian law states that the best interests of the child must be observed in immigration holding centres. The CBSA says children are detained only as a last resort.
In 2017-18, the CBSA says there were 151 minors detained. Of those, 144 were accompanied by their parent or guardian, and seven were unaccompanied.
In theory, parents largely decide whether or not their child remains with them in detention, but Hanna Gros, an immigration and refugee lawyer, says the situation can be a “catch-22.”
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“This is really a false choice,” she said. “When you’re new to a country, you don’t necessarily know anybody here, you don’t have family friends, contacts or community support. You have people here who are left with really horrifying choices to make in these situations.”
If a child has Canadian citizenship and their parents are considered non-citizens when detained, the children themselves are not considered detainees if their parents keep their kids with them, Gros says.
Leaving can be hard
For a migrant to be deported to another country, both countries have to agree to the person leaving one state and coming to another, says Silverman.
“Deportation is a two-way agreement between states, and not so much contingent on the individual,” she says. “There has to be an admission or an entrance of some sort into a another state.”
If neither the state nor the person leaving the country can verify the detainee’s identity, the person has to prove it from inside a detention centre, which can be hard, Silverman says.
For immigrants with a criminal record, the process can be even more difficult.
Certain states don’t issue travel documents for nationals who have been convicted of crimes in another country, which could also lengthen the detention process, Silverman says.