Early Sunday morning, February 26, 2017, migrants from Somalia cross into Canada illegally from the United States by walking down this train track into the town of Emerson, Man., where they will seek asylum at Canada Border Services Agency. THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods

Early Sunday morning, February 26, 2017, migrants from Somalia cross into Canada illegally from the United States by walking down this train track into the town of Emerson, Man., where they will seek asylum at Canada Border Services Agency. THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods

Abusive conditions in Canada’s immigration detention system: human rights groups

Canada Border Services Agency says on its website that individuals may be detained for a number of reasons

OTTAWA — Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International say Canada detains thousands of asylum seekers every year in often abusive conditions where people of colour appear to be held for longer periods.

The two leading human rights organizations documented in a joint report how people in immigration detention, including those fleeing persecution and seeking protection in Canada, are regularly handcuffed, shackled and held with little to no contact with the outside world.

The secretary general of Amnesty International Canada says the country’s abusive immigration detention system is in stark contrast to the rich diversity and the values of equality and justice that Canada is known for.

Ketty Nivyabandi says there should be no place in Canada for racism, cruelty, and human rights violations against people coming to this country seeking safety and a better life.

The Canada Border Services Agency says on its website that individuals may be detained for a number of reasons, including if they have criminal convictions, if they lack “ties to the community” or if they may be a danger to the public or the security of Canada.

It says a national immigration detention framework introduced in 2016, with a five-year investment of $138 million, created a “better, fairer” system that supports the “humane and dignified treatment of individuals while protecting public safety.”

Nivyabandi says Canada should sign and ratify the United Nations’ Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture to further prevent violations and open detention sites for international inspection.

She adds Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch are calling on the Canadian authorities to end the inhumane treatment of people in the immigration and refugee protection system by gradually ending immigration detention in Canada.

The 100-page report says people can be held for months or years on immigration-related grounds. Detainees who are from communities of colour, particularly Black detainees, appear to be held for longer periods, often in provincial jails, it says.

The report says Canada locked up 8,825 people between the ages of 15 and 83, including 1,932 in provincial jails between April 2019 and March 2020.

During the same period, 136 children were put in detention to avoid separating them from their detained parents, including 73 children under age six.

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International found that Canada has held more than 300 immigration detainees for longer than a year since 2016.

The report includes 90 interviews with former immigration detainees and their relatives, mental health experts, academics, lawyers, civil society representatives, and government officials.

The two organizations’ researchers also reviewed relevant reports, UN documents, and unpublished government documents obtained through 112 access to information requests.

The report says many asylum seekers are held in provincial jails with the regular jail population and are often subjected to solitary confinement, and those with psychosocial disabilities or mental health conditions experience discrimination.

Samer Muscati, associate disability rights director at Human Rights Watch, says Canada is one of the few countries in the global north where people seeking safety risk being locked up indefinitely.

Muscati says immigration authorities discriminate against people with disabilities by making the conditions of their detention harsher and the terms of their release more onerous than for many other detainees.

The two organizations found that many immigration detainees develop suicidal thoughts as they begin to lose hope that they will be released, and those fleeing traumatic experiences and persecution are particularly affected.

They say many former immigration detainees continue to live with the effects of psychosocial disabilities they developed during incarceration months and even years after their release.

The Canada Border Services Agency remains the only major law enforcement agency in Canada without independent civilian oversight, which repeatedly resulted in serious human rights violations in the context of immigration detention, the advocacy groups say.

“Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, Canadian authorities have released immigration detainees at unprecedented rates,” Muscati adds.

“Instead of returning to business as usual as the pandemic comes under control in Canada, the government has a real opportunity to overhaul its immigration and refugee protection system to prioritize mental health and human rights.”

This report was first published by The Canadian Press on June 17, 2021.

Immigration