Canada blasted for ‘needlessly punitive’ immigration detention system

Monday October 9, 2017

The UN has been asked to push Ottawa to establish an independent body to oversee the Canada Border Service Agency’s handling of immigration detainees.

A group of prominent human and civil rights organizations has filed a joint submission to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva on the eve of its periodic review of Canada’s domestic human rights conditions and records. The review, scheduled for early 2018, is conducted once every four years.

Despite progress made by the federal government in the past year in addressing some systemic issues with the detention system, the group said its treatment of immigration detainees, including children and individuals with mental health issues, continues to violate binding international law.

“In many cases, this treatment constitutes arbitrary detention, as well as cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment,” they said in their 18-page submission to the council on Thursday.

“There is no legislatively prescribed limit to the length of detention, and as such, detainees have no way to ascertain how long they will spend in detention. A needlessly punitive culture persists within the immigration detention system, and it is enabled by a series of systemic issues that must be addressed through legislative, regulatory, and policy amendments.”
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Last year Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale announced that $138 million would be invested to “enhance alternatives to detention” and rebuild immigration holding facilities, after a series of deaths of detainees, including Francisco Javier Romero Astorga, a Chilean, at Maplehurst; Melkioro Gahungu, a Burundian, at Toronto East; and an unnamed 24-year-old man in Edmonton.

Earlier this year, a Star investigative series also documented how hundreds of migrants were trapped in lengthy detention in maximum security facilities.

The number of people in detention has dropped to 6,251 last year from 8,739 in 2012, with the number of children in detention falling to 162 from 232. The federal government has also restored heath-care coverage for refugees and provided new funding to improve mental and medical health services for immigration detainees.

“Canada’s renewed efforts to become a global leader as a multicultural safe haven for refugees and migrants should be applauded, but it needs to move quickly to address the serious human rights violations of some of the most vulnerable members of our society,” said Samer Muscati, director of the University of Toronto’s International Human Rights Program, which led the joint submission to the UN.

“It’s time that Canada lives up to its human rights reputation by ending the needless detention of children and migrants with mental health conditions when alternatives already exist.”

While the criminal justice system has built-in mechanisms to safeguard inmates’ rights and treatment, Muscati said the immigration detention system has a much lower bar and individuals are detained for being flight risks, dangers to the public or having an undetermined identity.

“The legislative scheme is . . . not required by law to consider individuals’ mental health in decisions to detain individuals or continue their detention,” said the group submission.

“There is no effective and transparent monitoring of the conditions of confinement for detainees held in provincial jails, as independent monitors are often barred access to these facilities and their reports are not published.”

Although an independent tribunal conducts regular reviews of the continued detention, detainees’ mental health issues are seen as a cause for flight risk and danger to the public rather than a factor favouring release.

“The frequency of the detention review hearings is supposed to be a safeguard against indefinite detention, (but) with each decision to continue detention, it becomes more difficult to secure release,” said the report.

“Instead of reviewing previous decisions for potential mistakes, adjudicators take the findings of previous decisions at face value and only look for ‘clear and compelling reasons’ to depart from previous decisions.”

Border officials justify transferring immigration detainees from immigration detention centres to provincial jails for better access to mental health support, but the report said these inmates hardly receive any help.

“Detention causes psychological illness, trauma, depression, anxiety, aggression, and other physical, emotional and psychological consequences,” the report said.

“Uncertainty about the end date of detention is one of the most stressful aspects of the system, especially for those who cannot be removed from Canada due to legal or practical reasons that are out of their control.”

As a first step, the group said Canada should limit detention to 90 days and form an independent body or appoint an ombudsperson — akin to the federal Office of the Correctional Investigator — to oversee and investigate complaints against the border agency.

Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment.

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