A report released by the University of Toronto’s International Human Rights Program has shed light on the human rights violations faced by those held in Canadian immigration detention centers. Canada’s policy of detaining children or separating them from their detained parents is not only inhumane, but also violates international human rights standards. Many children are held in facilities that resemble medium-security prisons and some are held in young offender centers, or even solitary confinement (1). Approximately 242 children were held in Canadian immigration detention every year between 2010 and 2014 (2). That figure excludes the many children who stay in detention with their parents in order to avoid separation, taken by a child protection agency.
The practice of detaining children is part of a larger issue that plagues Canada’s immigration detention system. In 2012, the Canadian parliament passed Bill C-31, which permits the government to designate a group of incoming migrants as “irregular arrivals,” subjecting them to mandatory detention with limited judicial review (3). The Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) has the power to detain non-citizens deemed to be a flight risk, who pose a threat to public safety (less than 2% of those detained) and those whose identities cannot be confirmed (4). Canadian law sets no limit on the amount of time these migrants can be held. According to the Canada Border Services Agency, there are, on average, 450 to 500 people who are detained at any given time under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act (5). Many detainees are refugees, victims of smuggling and human trafficking, or people that do not want to leave their family members behind. People detained under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act are not criminals, nor are they facing criminal charges, yet many are treated as such.
The abusive nature of these facilities often results in psychological trauma that can continue long after being released from detention. Unable to experience childhood normalcy, children are given few chances to play and receive inadequate education. Even short periods of detention have negative consequences for children. Research shows that children react to immigration detention with “extreme distress,” become aggressive, display separation anxiety, have difficulty sleeping, and suffer loss of appetite (6). It is a complicated situation because even if children are released from detention, the emotional distress from family separation can be even more damaging. Additionally, a Red Cross investigation in 2014 found numerous shortcomings at facilities for immigrant detainees, including overcrowding and inadequate mental health care (7). Newcomers are often held in provincial jails or police facilities alongside violent criminals. Since 2000, at least 15 people have died in the custody of the CBSA, including 3 people by suicide (8).
The unfair detainment of children hurts Canada’s reputation as a global human rights supporter. Canada has signed international agreements, including the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which states that any detention has to be done as a last resort and for the least amount of time possible. Canada’s defiance of human rights standards has resulted in criticism from the international community, including the United Nations who labeled Canada’s treatment of immigration detainees as cruel and unusual (9). In 2015, the UN Human Rights Committee urged Canada to refrain from detaining “irregular migrants” for indefinite periods, to ensure that detention is used as a measure of last resort, and to provide refugee claimants with access to an appeal (10). The committee also urged Canada to provide essential healthcare services to all refugee claimants, including medical support for mental health conditions (11). Additionally, the committee recommended that Canada establish effective, adequate, and well-resourced oversight mechanisms for national security and intelligence agencies, including the CBSA which has the sole power to arrest and detain non-citizens on administrative grounds (12).
In response to the criticism, Canada’s Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale announced in August that the Canadian Immigration Detention Program is to get a $138-million makeover (13). The government's reform objectives include increasing the availability of alternatives to detention, reducing the use of provincial jails for detention to prevent the interaction of immigration and criminal detainees, avoiding the detention of minors in the facilities as much as possible, improving physical and mental health care offered to those detained, and maintaining ready access to facilities for agencies such as the Red Cross, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees as well as legal and spiritual advisers (14). The End Immigration Detention Network says reforms are welcome, but the system is inherently unfair (15).
"Immigration detention including in immigration holding centers is imprisonment without charges or trial. It should end, not be expanded by throwing over a hundred million dollars at it," the Network's spokesperson Tings Chak said (16).
The steps being made by Canada to reform its Immigration Detention Program are a step in the right direction. Yet, only time will tell how seriously the government takes its promise to seek out alternative methods for detention and family separation, which should be the main priority. Other countries, such as Sweden and Hong Kong, allow children to reside with their families in the community through reporting requirements, financial deposits, supervision programs, and electronic monitoring of parents (17). Detention is not only inhumane, but also more costly with lower compliance rates, compared to these alternative methods (18). Programs like this should be what Canada is investing in, not just improving the conditions of detainment. Detaining people, including children, solely because of their immigration status is an unacceptable violation of human rights. Canada must act swiftly and efficiently to create humane policy alternatives, including thoughtful refugee resettlement reform, to end the tragic suffering of families and children.
(1) Kassam, Ashifa. "Canada Detains Hundreds of Children for Immigration Violations, Report Finds." The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 22 Sept. 2016. Web. 03 Oct. 2016.
(3) Muscati, Samer. "Canada." Human Rights Watch. Human Rights Watch, 28 Jan. 2016. Web. 03 Oct. 2016.
(4) Kassam, Ashifa. "Canada Detains Hundreds of Children for Immigration Violations, Report Finds." The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 22 Sept. 2016. Web. 03 Oct. 2016.
(5) "Canada's Immigration Detention Program to Get $138M Makeover." CBC News Montreal. CBC Radio Canada, 15 Aug. 2016. Web. 2 Oct. 2016.
(6) Bochenek, Michael Garcia. "Canada's Detention of Children." Human Rights Watch. Human Rights Watch, 22 Sept. 2016. Web. 03 Oct. 2016.
(7) "Canada's Immigration Detention Program to Get $138M Makeover." CBC News Montreal. CBC Radio Canada, 15 Aug. 2016. Web. 2 Oct. 2016.
(8) Kassam, Ashifa. "Canada Detains Hundreds of Children for Immigration Violations, Report Finds." The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 22 Sept. 2016. Web. 03 Oct. 2016.
(9) "UN Human Rights Committee's 2015 Concluding Observation on Canada." University of Toronto Faculty of Law. University of Toronto, 13 Aug. 2015. Web. 03 Oct. 2016.
(13) "Canada's Immigration Detention Program to Get $138M Makeover." CBC News Montreal. CBC Radio Canada, 15 Aug. 2016. Web. 2 Oct. 2016.
(17) Bochenek, Michael Garcia. "Canada's Detention of Children." Human Rights Watch. Human Rights Watch, 22 Sept. 2016. Web. 03 Oct. 2016.
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Erin is from Chicago, a junior at USC and plans on graduating in May 2018. She is a political science major with minors in psychology and business law, currently studying abroad at the University of Cape Town.