‘Surprising and scandalous’: Take migrant detainees out of provincial jails, critics tell Ottawa

The Toronto Star

Irem Koca The Star Mon., Nov. 14, 2022

OTTAWA — Two former federal cabinet ministers called on the government Monday to end the practice of incarcerating refugee claimants and migrants in provincial jails on administrative grounds.

“The facts are now out. The stories are public. Now we must decide what we’re going to do about it,” Allan Rock, a former justice minister and ambassador to the United Nations, told a news conference on Parliament Hill.

Rock and former foreign affairs minister Lloyd Axworthy joined Amnesty International Canada and Human Rights Watch to condemn what they alleged were arbitrary practices by the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) and serious human rights violations in immigration detention.

In 2019-20, more than 8,800 migrants were detained in Canada, 19 per cent of them in provincial facilities. In 2020-21, the number dropped to 1,605, with 40 per cent held in provincial jails, as public health concerns amid the pandemic prompted the release of detainees who posed little risk to the public.

CBSA has holding centres in British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec; in other provinces, migrants who have been detained can be held in provincial jails.

In a statement, CBSA said it also “relies on the use of provincial correctional facilities for the housing of immigration detainees whose risk or behaviour cannot be effectively managed” in holding centres.

Canada’s immigration detention system came under fire in recent years after several detainees died in custody. Advocates are particularly concerned about the use of provincial jails to hold migrants alongside convicted prisoners — often over months and in some cases, years — on administrative grounds, pending their removals from Canada.

Across the country, more than 70 correctional facilities are used to hold federal immigration detainees whom Canada Border officials deemed a threat to the public safety or to themselves.

“It is both surprising and scandalous that an agency of the federal government treats fundamental rights with such disdain and pays no attention to the evidence,” said Axworthy, who is now chair of the World Refugee & Migration Council.

In the House of Commons on Monday, NDP MP Jenny Kwan asked when the government would “put an end to this odious immigration detention practice.”

“Canada has a robust and fair refugee system and immigration detention is a measure of last resort,” replied Liberal MP Pam Damoff, the parliamentary secretary to Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino, who is responsible for the CBSA.

“While we’ve made significant progress, there’s more work to do.”

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International launched a joint campaign last year to lobby against the practice of holding immigration detainees in jails alongside criminals.

They are campaigning for Ontario, which holds more than half of all immigration detainees in Canada, to follow four other provinces that do not want to hold them in jails on administrative grounds.

Both former ministers said they had been made aware of such situations when they were in the government, and suggested that the current federal government should take a stronger leadership role.

“We badly need political leadership and effective oversight of the Canadian Border Services Agency so that it doesn’t become a rogue agency,” said Rock.

Rock said senior government officials had responded positively to his call to action, but emphasized that the CBSA was the major stumbling block.

“I believe there is a commitment in good faith on the part of the ministers to do something about this. What we’re seeing, again and again, is the intransigence of the Canadian Border Services Agency. The difficulty there is in reining in the powerful organization which sometimes appears to have a mind of its own.”

The news conference kicked off a “12 Days of Action” campaign by human rights groups calling on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to end the detention of immigrants across the country.

The call to action came after decisions by four provinces to review their immigration detention policies. In the last four months, British Columbia, Nova Scotia, Manitoba and Alberta have asked Ottawa to cancel its immigration detention agreement with the CBSA.

Samer Muscati, the assistant disability rights director of Human Rights Watch, said urgent action is needed to prevent further violations of human rights due to the rising numbers of detainees.

“We are anxious about the increasing numbers we are seeing right now,” said Muscati.

A 2021 report by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International drew attention to the thousands of migrants and asylum seekers who have suffered human rights abuses in detention.

Ketty Nivyabandi, secretary general of Amnesty International Canada, said that over the past decade, thousands of immigrants — including children and refugee claimants — have been held in detention despite not facing charges or having criminal records.

Egyptian refugee Abdelrahman Elmady, who has a hearing disability, told the news conference that he was held in three different jails over two months in British Columbia without being charged or given a release date.

“I spent most of my time in jail in silence. I was only provided with one hearing-aid battery at a time, and only for CBSA meetings and hearings,” said Elmady.

The report said people of colour, especially Black men, were confined in more restrictive conditions and for much longer in immigration detention.