They’re called “guests” — the Canadian children who live in immigration detention centers with their migrant parents as their refugee claims wind through the system. They aren’t typically counted by the government, but a new report released today reveals that more than 200 Canadian children have lived in these circumstances in a Toronto detention center from 2011 to 2015.
That’s an average of around 48 children per year, according to the 60-page report from researchers at the University of Toronto. And since the Canada Border Services Agency did not provide detailed numbers on Canadian children housed at its other detention facilities in Vancouver and Laval, Quebec, these numbers are very likely higher. This is on top of hundreds of non-Canadian children and parents also routinely detained by the agency every year.
Based on interviews with mothers who are living in detention or have been released, the report entitled Invisible Citizens: Canadian Children in Immigration Detention outlines the mental and physical toll the detention regime takes, even after they are released.
Common symptoms among children in detention include not being able to fall asleep, loss of appetite, boredom, signs of depression, and separation anxiety. Mothers described being threatened to be handcuffed in front of their children, being subjected to room searches during bath time, and facing pressure by border officials to be separated from their babies. Most of the children housed at the Toronto center are six years of age or younger.
“This is such a dichotomy and a problem that not many people know about the detention of asylum seekers in Canada.”
The stories of these families support the report author’s call for the government to end or at least continue reducing its practice of holding parents and children in immigration detention, regardless of their citizenship.
“In many ways Canada is a leader on the world stage in accepting refugees and promoting human rights, especially when you see what’s happening south of the border,” said Samer Muscati, one of the report authors and director at the International Human Rights Program at U of T. “This is such a dichotomy and a problem that not many people know about the detention of asylum seekers in Canada.”
Under Canadian immigration law, CBSA can arrest and detain asylum seekers and permanent residents who are believed to be a threat to public safety, if it’s assumed they will skip any upcoming hearings, and if their identity is in question. They are usually held in one of the centers in Toronto or Laval, or the temporary holding center in the Vancouver airport. For those who remain in detention, hearings are held every 30 days to determine if they should remain there. Children, including the Canadian ones who aren’t supposed to be there, remain in detention with their parents if it’s determined to be in his or her best interest — and there’s no cap on how long they can be kept there.
And in the case of Canadian children living in detention, they actually have fewer rights than non-Canadian children because they aren’t technically supposed to be living there and aren’t officially detained.
While the number of children and parents being detained has dropped significantly in recent years — there were 33 Canadian children living in the Toronto immigration holding center in 2015 compared to 43 the year before — the report notes that the CBSA is not keeping track of the families who end up being separated. For instance, if a parent is held in detention while the children and remaining family members live on the outside.
“It breaks my heart when she comes to visit I cannot hold her.”
One mother, who still lives in detention, told the report’s authors that CBSA officers arrested her in her apartment building in November 2016 when she was on the way to drop her daughter, who’s now eight years old, at school. The officers didn’t give her an option to bring her daughter with her to the detention center, and she now lives with her father. They’re forced to conduct visits through plexiglass, like in a prison.
The mother, called Selena, said the separation is affecting her daughter greatly, and she’s become shy and depressed at school. “I always want to call her … when I hear her voice it puts me at ease,” she said, according to the report. “But at the same time I don’t want to because it breaks my heart that I’m not there with her. It breaks my heart when she comes to visit I cannot hold her.”
Given the recent influx of asylum seekers and their families illegally crossing the border from the U.S. into Canada, Muscati says he worries they could also end up being held in immigration detention. While most families intercepted at the border so far have been released into the community pending their refugee claims, Muscati explained there is a risk that the numbers of people in detention might continue to increase unless a serious effort is made to implement alternatives.
“Canada has to be prepared for this situation and focus on this now before it becomes an issue,” he said.
The report recommends a number of alternatives to detention, including that families should be accommodated in community-based non-custodial programs, like a bail program, that might involve reporting obligations, financial deposits and guarantors. Muscati pointed to places such as Sweden, where asylum-seeking families with children are typically released within days of being detained into the care of a social worker whose job it is to find them somewhere to live while their claim is pursued.
“Canada has to be prepared for this situation and focus on this now before it becomes an issue.”
Previously released figures show that from 2005 to 2015, more than 4,392 minors under the age of 18 years were housed at some point in an immigration holding center, a fraction of the 86,056 asylum seekers detained over that same period of time. A previous report by the group at U of T found that many of these adult asylum seekers are held in provincial jails — as opposed to the immigration holding centers — and are routinely subjected to arbitrary detention times and other human rights abuses.
A spokesperson for the CBSA did not respond to repeated requests for comment from VICE News by deadline, but the associate director told the report authors in a letter earlier this month that the agency was “very concerned by the characterization of events and the alleged level of care captured in the draft report as described by the six persons detained or formerly detained at the CBSA Immigration Holding Centers.”
But as 50 migrants held a hunger strike in two Ontario jails last summer, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale announced his department would inject $138 million to improve Canada’s immigration detention system by focusing on alternatives to detention, particularly for minors, and expanding the capacity of the existing holding centers. It’s unclear when exactly those measures will be implemented.
“If we fail in our duty of care to the smallest among us then we fail the most basic test of justice and compassion,” Goodale said at the time.