Tings Chak from the End Immigration Detention Network in front of the Public Services Canada building in Ottawa where activists shut down the building last weekend. Photo courtesy the End Immigration Detention Network.
Over 100 detained migrants in Canada are boycotting their only chance for release. They say the system is rigged, and they're willing to give up a chance for freedom to make the point.
The system in question is Canada's immigration detention system, and its business is policing migrants without permanent residence status. Migrants include people claiming refugee status, or undocumented people or people who’ve had their status revoked. They’re detained by the Canadian Border Services Agency on three grounds; they’re a danger to the public, unable to prove their identity, or seem unlikely to appear for immigration proceedings.
Last year between 7,373 and 9,932 migrants were detained. Just over 200 of them were children.
There’s no time limit on migrant detention; the only mechanism reviewing individual cases are detention reviews, a standard process administered by the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada where each detained migrant's case is reviewed monthly after initial processing to determine whether Canada should deport them, continue to hold them or release them.
These detention reviews are the focal point of some migrants’ boycott campaign. It was organized by detainees and spans three Ontario maximum security prisons, where immigration detainees are held once centres run out of room.
The campaign comes after a year of rising tension; a 65-day hunger strike took place in Ontario detention centres last fall, and the death of a Mexican migrant in detention in a Vancouver centre prompted outcry for an investigation of the system.
Detainees participating in the boycott say they odds are against them, the system is unfair, unjust and they see no way out. And their claims have legs.
A new report, based on access to information requests gathered over the course of seven months, shows trends that where you are in Canada and which IRB official presides over your case determines your chance of being released.
The report was written by the End Immigration Detention Network, a working group of No One is Illegal Toronto. They began to file access to information requests in October 2013, a month into the detainees' fall hunger strike. The documents date from 2008 to 2013.
According to the report, rates of release from detention varies between province and between IRB members. The decision over whether a detainee will be released or remain in detention is up to the IRB member reviewing the case. Whether deportation happens or not is the CBSA’s job to determine.
For each year the group obtained data (2008, 2012 and 2013), the rate of release decreased. Currently, the national average rate of release is 15 percent. In the western and eastern regions the rate hovers at 27 and 24 percent respectively. In Ontario, the rate is 9 percent. The rate for Ontario was 21 per cent in 2008.
For researcher Syed Hussan, the documents add up to one conclusion. "Somebody is instructing or something is making these politically-appointed board members release less people each year. "
"The report is... making a very groundbreaking claim. We’re saying that there are signs of political interference in what must be a fair arbitration process where individuals are judged based on the merits of their case."
Immigration consultation Macdonald Scott has represented about 12 detainees since 1998. He supports the report's conclusion that interference is occurring and worked with NOII and the End Immigration Detention Network to gather documents for the report.
"The rates had dropped in such an alarming way in the last three to five years that I don’t know what else could say it... That wouldn’t happen just because Board members are waking up more cranky every day."
"The Board members are getting a signal that they have to not let people go."
But none of the documents obtained show a paper trail of interference, a fact that doesn't necessarily rule out the claim but makes the claim harder to prove—particularly when the IRB denies claims of any interference.
"Contrary to the allegations made by the End Immigration Detention Network, there is no 'policy or decision to systematically reduce detention release rates' by the Immigration Division," read the IRB's statement to VICE. "ID members are independent and not subject to political interference or influence."
Hussan maintains that there are other methods of interfering "outside of the transparency of what is supposed to be a transparent system" without leaving a paper trail.
"This is analogous to if people who are going through the criminal justice system coordinated a boycott of the entire court system in the context of a report coming out showing political interference in the judges. This is a massive scandal."
NOII and the End Immigration Detention Network are appealing to everyone, particularly Parliamentarians, to ask the Harper government to explain the trends the report shows. Last week a series of actions and demonstrations were organized by both groups in Ottawa.
The boycott of detention reviews is set to continue until June 30. The results of the boycott remain to be seen. Scott expects the real outcomes for detainees taking part in boycott to become apparent next month, when they appear for their next detention review.