Feds must follow provinces' lead and end immigration detention system: Amnesty International Canada

All ten provinces committed to ending incarceration of immigration detainees in provincial jails

Feds must follow provinces' lead and end immigration detention system: Amnesty International Canada
Julia Sande, Amnesty International Canada

Now that all ten provinces have vowed to end immigration detention in prisons, the federal government must follow their lead and put an end to the “human rights abusing” system, says Julia Sande, a lawyer at Amnesty International Canada.

As of March 31, Newfoundland and Labrador will no longer incarcerate people detained for administrative immigration purposes in its provincial jails. The province is the last to cancel its arrangement with the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) for immigration detention arrangements.

With all ten provinces committed to ending the practice, which critics denounce as a violation of international human rights standards, Amnesty International Canada and Human Rights Watch say the federal government should follow suit and “take meaningful steps” to end immigration detention.

“We'd like to see them change the law so that immigration detention can never take place in a jail again,” says Sande. “But we also want to see an end to immigration detention. That can be through the use of rights-respecting, community-based alternatives to detention so that no one is detained, no one is subjected to immigration detention, no one has their liberty taken away based solely on administrative immigration grounds.”

CBSA spokesperson Karine Martel says the immigration detention program is carried out in accordance with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the procedural safeguards and detainee rights it guarantees. The CBSA limits the use of detention to “difficult cases” with serious concerns about flight risk and public safety. Between 2016 and 2023, the number of immigration detainees in provincial jails dropped by 54 percent, from 2,043 to 931.  

Sande says the decision to detain someone for being a flight risk is “very broad and discretionary,” and the CBSA official is not required to provide any evidence demonstrating an unlikeliness to appear.

“The fact that someone has many family ties in Canada has been used to suggest that they were a flight risk or may not appear. The fact that someone did not have any ties in Canada has been used to suggest they were a flight risk.”

Martel says that under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, detention must only be used as a “measure of last resort.” When someone is held for being unlikely to appear, they may have outstanding charges for violent offences such as assault with a weapon, attempted murder, assaulting an officer with a weapon, and aggravated sexual assault. “Or,” she adds,
“they may have demonstrated violent, non-compliant, and unpredictable behaviour that places them, other detainees, the guards and medical personnel at risk.”

Martel says every case is reviewed within 48 hours by the Immigration and Refugee Board.

There are three federal immigration holding centres in Canada. Sande says racialized people and, in particular, Black men from the Caribbean and Africa were more likely to be held in provincial jails. She has also found that psychosocial or mental health disabilities were used as justifications for holding them in provincial jails.

“Across the board, the impacts of detention, even brief periods, cause new and exacerbate existing mental health conditions, including anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress,” says Sande.

“There are all sorts of harms and concerns with the system and rights abuses within it, and so what we are pushing for is for Canada to work to end immigration detention altogether.”

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