Immigrant detention in Canadian prisons is a public health emergency

This month, human rights groups launched 12 Days of Action to demand that the federal government stop confining immigration detainees in provincial jails. This effort is part of the broader #WelcomeToCanada campaign.

As scholars who study migration, we have joined this effort, along with experts and organizations across the country that serve and protect the rights of immigrants and refugees.

Four provinces — BC, Nova Scotia, Alberta and Manitoba — have already decided to stop the practice by canceling their immigration detention contracts with the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA). It’s time for the federal government to end remaining contracts and abolish immigration detention in Canada.

Canada’s dangerous immigration detention system

Immigrants and asylum seekers who are arrested and imprisoned in immigration detention are never held on criminal charges or convictions. Instead, the Canada Border Services Agency imprisons people under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, most commonly because the officer believes the person in question will miss immigration or asylum procedures.

Each year, hundreds are arbitrarily detained in county jails. Many of the people in immigration detention centers are survivors of armed conflict and persecution, and have faced trauma and human rights abuses during their migration journeys.

A sign on a lawn reads: Border Services Agency Detention Center.
CBSA Immigrant Detention Center in Laval, Que. Many of the people in immigration detention centers are survivors of armed conflict and persecution and have suffered immeasurable trauma and human rights abuses.
The Canadian Press/Graham Hughes

Rather than providing early, evidence-based support for these critical needs, the current approach to immigration detention is leading to severe and lasting negative health and social consequences. Canada’s immigration detention system is riddled with international human rights abuses, yet the number of immigrant detainees continues to rise.

Canada is often seen as a safe haven for newcomers, but in 2020, 8,825 people were detained on immigration grounds, including 136 children. People in immigration detention face some of the most restrictive forms of confinement in Canada, including in high security prisons and solitary confinement, both of which result in restricted access to legal counsel and other vital support services.

Many of them were shackled and handcuffed, strip-searched and their personal belongings confiscated. People with mental health conditions and black men of African and Caribbean descent often face the harshest and most punishing conditions.

People held in immigration centers run the risk of being detained indefinitely, as there is no legislative cap on the length of detention. This has left many languishing in confinement, unsure if or when they will be released or deported.

Such was the case for Abdul Rahman Hassan, who was held in a maximum security prison for more than three years before his death in 2015. Since 2016, at least 300 people have been held in immigration detention centers for more than a year, with the longest holding period lasting 11 years.

Long term health effects

Research shows that immigration detention is associated with significant mental health concerns. Confinement without charge, indefinite detention, the threat of deportation and living in a petrified environment have been shown to contribute to higher rates of suicide, self-harm, depression, anxiety and psychosis.

Abd al-Rahman Warsama, who has been detained for more than five years, described his experience as torture. The mental health consequences of detention continue long after their release and affect their loved ones and their communities.

Children can also be detained, which has serious consequences for their health and well-being. Even short periods of confinement cause significant psychological harm. Reports have documented developmental delay, suicidal ideation, and selective mutism. In 2014, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees called for the abolition of child detention – Canada is long overdue in responding to this call.

Family carrying bags with police officers wearing high visibility jackets.
A family has been arrested by RCMP officers as they cross the border into Canada from the United States as asylum seekers. Immigrants run the risk of being detained indefinitely as there is no legislative cap on the length of detention.
The Canadian Press/Paul Chiasson

In addition to mental health concerns, immigration detention has been linked to malnutrition, edema, high blood pressure, increased risk of certain infectious diseases, such as COVID-19, and significant unmet healthcare needs. Concerns are exacerbated among pregnant women, who face difficulty in obtaining quality prenatal care, and high rates of miscarriage, pre-eclampsia, premature birth and infant mortality.

According to a 2019 report from Ontario State Prisons, “correctional facilities are not equipped to provide consistent, equitable, high-quality health care.”

The atrocious conditions and policies of immigrant detention have proven fatal. At least 17 people have died in CBSA custody since 2000. This includes the death of an immigrant held in Laval Immigration Center on January 28, 2022, who died after being found in a “medical distress”.

Like the others, they remain unnamed and the cause of their death is unknown to the public. The Canada Border Services Agency remains the only major law enforcement agency in Canada without independent civilian oversight.

Ending “criminal immigration”

Canada’s unfair use of immigration detention stands in stark contrast to its image as welcoming and multicultural. After the outbreak of the epidemic, the authorities released hundreds of people from immigrant detention to limit the spread of the virus. This provides sufficient evidence that immigration detention was not used as a measure of last resort, and that alternatives to detention were available.

Instead of being imprisoned, newcomers should be welcomed into communities. There are a range of community organizations that provide customized and compassionate support to immigrants and refugees across Canada.

These alternatives to detention allow families to stay together, are more cost-effective, and prevent the physical and mental health harms of detention. High compliance rates have been observed as migrants and asylum seekers are given support such as housing and education, given legal aid and case management support and treated with respect.

Based on the serious health and human rights implications of immigration detention, the public health evidence is clear – it’s time to end immigration detention once and for all.

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