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Nearly 100,000 migrants in Canada jailed without charge

Over the past nine years the Canadian government jailed 87,317 migrants, including hundreds of children, without charges.

Detention: The Canadian government jailed 87,317 migrants without charges between 2006 and 2014. Migrants, including up to 807 children per year, are the only population in Canada who can be jailed on administrative grounds without ever being charged with a specific criminal offense. In 2013 alone, migrant detainees spent a collective total of 503 years behind bars. Many migrants face indefinite detention and some migrants now face mandatory detention.

The Canadian government jailed over 87,317 migrants without charge between 2006-2014, and spent more than a quarter of a billion dollars over five years to detain migrants. Migrants are the only population within Canada who can be jailed simply on administrative grounds without being charged with a specific criminal offense.

In 2014, the United Nations’ High Commissioner for Human Rights’ Working Group on Arbitrary Detention strongly chastised the Canadian immigration detention system. The University of Toronto’s International Human Rights Program released a study in 2015 finding that Canada’s rising detention of non-criminal foreigners in maximum-security prisons amounts to arbitrary, cruel and inhumane treatment that violates international obligations.

Over the past nine years the Canadian government jailed 87,317 migrants, including hundreds of children, without charges.

Most recently, the United Nations Human Rights Committee argued that “The State party [Canada] should refrain from detaining irregular migrants for an indefinite period of time and should ensure that detention is used as a measure of last resort, that a reasonable time limit for detention is set…”

I am a survivor of sexual violence and domestic abuse in my home. I came to Canada because I am afraid that my abuser will find me in my country of origin wherever I live. I am fearful for my life. I have been detained in a Canadian detention center for three months. I do not know how long I will be here and if or when I will be released… I have been so stressed out and anxious. Last month, this resulted in me having a miscarriage in the detention center. I did not receive proper medical attention for six days and at the time they tried to tell me that I wasn’t even pregnant! I hope everyone wakes up to the horrors of immigration detention in this country. It is a slow death. – Anonymous detainee, as told to NOII in 2014.

Immigration detention is one of the fastest growing forms of incarceration in Canada. Over the past 10 years, the government has detained an average of 11,000 migrants per year, including up to 807 children detained each year. In some cases, young Canadian children such as Alpha Anawa have been born in Canada Border Services Agency custody, spending their entire lives behind bars. Francis Davidson, a hunger-striking migrant detainee at Central East Correctional in Ontario, describes his pain behind bars, “Immigration detention is getting way out of hand. They are locking us up and forgetting about us. I have seen four people held in detention with me pass away while in CBSA [Canada Border Services Agency] custody, there is no end to detention and I am worried the next one will be me.”

“I have seen four people held in detention with me pass away.”

There have been at least 12 documented deaths in immigration detention custody since 2000. These include Sheik Kudrath, Joseph Fernandes, Jan Szamko, Kevon O’Brien-Phillip, Shawn Dwight Cole, Prince Maxamillion Akamai, Joseph Dunn, Lucia Vega Jimenez, Abdurahman Ibrahim Hassan, and a number of unidentified detainees.

Detention as a First Resort

Canada Border Services Agency officers have broad powers to detain migrants if they believe – based on mere suspicion – that the person is a flight risk, a danger to public safety, inadmissible on security grounds, or is not adequately identified. Contrary to popular perception, 94.2 percent of refugees are detained on grounds other than being an alleged security threat.

The length of my detention has not been predicated on any evidence that I am a ‘threat to national security’ or that my release poses any ‘risk to the public safety.’ Yet I have endured the psychological trauma of confinement and the emotional suffering and anxiety of being separated from my son (who has since been granted asylum in Canada). Nader, Iranian refugee

Canada is one of the only ‘Western’ countries to have indefinite detention, often with limited access to family, legal counsel and third-party monitoring agencies. The US and EU countries have a “presumptive period,” meaning that if removal cannot happen within a certain number of days then detainees must be released. In the US, this period is 90 days. In Canada, some immigration detainees have been jailed for over ten years without charges or trial, including South African anti-apartheid icon Mbuyisa Makhubu.

Canada is also becoming one of the few Western countries to practice mandatory detention. In 2009 and 2010, the Conservatives justified the months-long immediate detention of over 500 Tamil asylum seekers, including women and children, aboard MV Ocean Lady and MV Sun Sea by fear mongering and falsely claiming they were “terrorists,” “illegals,” and “irregular arrivals.”

Due to the sweeping 2012 “Refugee Exclusion Act” (Bill C-31, officially known as Protecting Canada’s Immigration System Act), many more refugees, including children, face mandatory incarceration upon arrival if designated as irregular arrivals. In contravention of international law, this is a punitive measure to punish refugees who resort to guides and smugglers to escape their country of origin (under this law, Harriet Tubman’s Underground Railroad could be considered a smuggling operation). In 2012, five different groups of Romanian refugee claimants were designated as irregular arrivals by the Conservative government. The consequences of this designation for each person over fifteen years of age are being forced into prison for two weeks to one year, and being forced to make a refugee claim from jail.

In Canada, some immigration detainees have been jailed for over ten years without charges or trial, including South African anti-apartheid icon Mbuyisa Makhubu.

In 2013, migrant detainees spent a whopping total of 183,928 days (that’s over 503 years) in immigration detention. According to a recent report by the End Immigration Detention Network, fewer migrants are being released from detention each year, with a national release rate average of just 15 percent. In Ontario, less than 10 percent of migrants are released, compared with 27 percent in Alberta and British Columbia.

The decision to detain or release is made by Immigration and Refugee Board Members, who are civil servants not required to be trained in the law. Board member release rates vary arbitrarily between 5 percent and 38 percent, and there is no comprehensive judicial oversight of these decisions. A recent CTV News report revealed that government lawyers were forcing detained Tamil refugees to pay back thousands of dollars in debt to smugglers in order to be released from jail.

Migrant detainees are either imprisoned in one of three CBSA-run immigration-holding centers in Toronto, Laval, and Vancouver, or in one of over forty provincial prisons, including maximum-security prisons, where they can be forced in cells for up to 18 hours per day. Over one third of all migrant detainees are held in provincial prisons. Canada is one of the only Western countries to mix populations of migrants facing administrative offenses with people facing the criminal injustice system, increasing the potential for in-custody tension and violence due to different lived experiences.