Hameed and Saeed: End the detention of immigrants in Ontario jails

Ottawa Citizen

Yavar Hameed &  Haniya Saeed Ottawa Citizen Nov 23, 2022  

On Nov. 14, a campaign was announced in Ottawa to end the federal government’s contracts with provincial prisons for holding immigration detainees. This campaign, spearheaded by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, builds on the recent momentum of four provinces — British Columbia, Nova Scotia, Alberta and Manitoba — that have agreed to end their contracts with the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA). It is time for Ontario to follow suit.

CBSA has held contracts with provincial jails and correctional facilities since at least 2006. These arrangements enable CBSA to subcontract the detention of immigrants to provincial authorities for violations of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act.

Provincial incarceration represents a disproportionate and inhumane response to immigration control that has been normalized for decades. It places immigration detainees in jail. Sometimes indefinitely. Human Rights Watch has documented a disproportionate impact of immigration detention upon communities of colour, including Black men, who face more restrictive conditions. Immigration detention also creates discriminatory effects for persons with disabilities. It is an inherently punitive system.

In its implementation, immigration detention often does not conform with human rights standards, including the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

On average, 7,215 individuals are detained each year at a cost of up to $393.30 per day in public funds. When CBSA is unable to remove someone from Canada who is deemed “inadmissible,” the person ends up languishing in harsh conditions.

Kashif Ali, for example, spent seven years in various maximum security prisons before he was granted a conditional release by way of habeas corpus application. If not for the diligence of his legal team, Kashif could still be in prison today.

Detention for migrants seeking asylum in Canada is traumatic. Consider the case of Lucia Vega Jimenez, who was arrested in December 2014 for an unpaid transit ticket. She was subsequently transferred to a CBSA holding facility at the Vancouver airport to await deportation. In spite of her distress about being sent back to Mexico and recommendations made by nurses, Lucia did not receive proper mental health care. She died by suicide at a Vancouver immigration holding centre soon after.

In Ottawa, immigration detainees are held at the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre (OCDC), a facility that has been judicially recognized as being deplorable and unduly harsh. Immigration detainees are held at OCDC alongside prisoners awaiting trial or criminal sentence. Here, sometimes prisoners are double-bunked in cells stained with blood and feces. It is a legal and moral imperative that no human being should ever be made to endure such conditions — whether for violations of immigration rules or criminal matters.

Ending immigration detention is possible. Through the pandemic, the general public and policymakers have witnessed, out of necessity, that decarceration — the removal of prisoners from jails — can work. We need to approach migration and the traumas associated with it in a more humane and sustainable fashion. Putting migrants in jail for their administrative non-compliance with immigration requirements devalues their struggles in coming to Canada and ignores the profound burden of incarceration upon their mental and physical well-being.

Cancelling Ontario’s detention contracts with the CBSA would represent a response that recognizes the trauma of migration in a manner compliant with human rights standards. In Ottawa, such a decision would have an important and regenerative impact on our city including our communities of colour, many of which have been shaped by the settlement of migrants.

Yavar Hameed is an Ottawa human rights lawyer. Haniya Saeed is co-president, Carleton University Human Rights Society.