Every morning for the better part of this year, eight-year-old Mojisola waited for a school bus outside the Toronto immigration detention center that she and her mother called home. It was empty. She was always the first to get picked up and the last to be dropped off so that her classmates wouldn’t know where she came from.
The bus routine was a hard fought victory by Mojisola’s lawyers. Before, they would personally pick her up from the Rexdale facility, northwest of the city, and drive her an hour to and from school. Upon her return to the facility, she would sometimes pass through a body scanner before joining her mother in the family wing of the building.
Mojisola, whose name has been changed for privacy reasons, was taken out of her third grade class the day Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) officers came to arrest her mother, an asylum seeker from Togo, on various immigration infractions — none criminal in nature.
At least in recent years, Mojisola, who was born in the Toronto area, is believed to be the only child granted these in-and-out school privileges. Throughout those months when she wasn’t allowed to leave, she ached for gym classes and reading books with her friends. After more than a year in custody — one of the longest detention periods that a child has been held in Canada — she and her mother were released and are still in the country.
Mojisola’s case is rare, perhaps because circumstances like hers fly under the radar. CBSA isn’t allowed to detain Canadian citizens, so children like her are considered “guests” in the detention centers — and they aren’t counted in the government’s statistics.
“I cry all the time.”
But her story exposes the conundrum of what authorities should do with children, Canadian or not, when their parents are caught up in the immigration bureaucracy. And it serves as a powerful example for lawyers who are pushing to reform a system they believe is infringing on the human rights of youth.
One alternative, of placing children in protective services while their parents remained locked up, has worried migrant rights advocates, who say separation is worse than detention. The ideal scenario, they say, is to allow families to remain together in the community pending the outcome of their immigration matters.
Over the last decade, from 2005 to 2015, more than 4,392 minors under the age of 18 were held in immigration detention centers in Canada, representing a small fraction of the 86,056 asylum seekers who were detained over the same time period. According to new CBSA statistics obtained by VICE News under an access to information request, 33 non-Canadian children were held in immigration detention from October of 2015 to April of this year.
CBSA can arrest and detain non-Canadian citizens when their identity is in question, they’ve been deemed a risk to public safety, or if they believe the person will not appear for their immigration proceedings or deportation. There is no limit on how long non-citizens can be held in these facilities, but the administrative detention is meant to be temporary.
The new data show that a 17-year-old male from St. Vincent and the Grenadines was held in Toronto for 171 days because CBSA deemed him unlikely to show up for their next immigration proceeding.
“CBSA doesn’t have the knowledge, skills, or willingness to assist young people who end up in their care. It has an easy time keeping young people in custody, and it’s a significant problem that seems to be on the rise.”
A 2-year-old Nigerian boy was held for 37 days at the Toronto facility over grounds that he (or, more likely his parent or guardian) wouldn’t appear to a “minister’s proceeding.” There was also a four-year-old Indian girl who was held for 113 days because of concerns over her identity at the facility in Laval, Quebec. Also held there, for nearly a month, was a 17-year-old Hungarian girl who was in the midst of being deported.
But these cases rarely come to light in the media, and rarely prompt outcry.
One exception was the case of a 16-year-old Syrian male who was held at the facility in Toronto for three weeks, as officials worried he wouldn’t appear to his next hearing. Because management felt he was too old to stay in the family wing with mothers and children, and too young to stay in the men’s wing, he was held in isolation — in a room with no contact with other inmates, or a lawyer.
“I cry all the time,” the teen told CBC News at the time. Shortly after his story was made public and he was released, Canada’s immigration minister stepped in and he was granted status to remain in Canada.
Experts, including NGO staff who work inside the facilities, say the number of minors is likely much higher because the official statistics do not account for the Canadian children held there with family members.
But even with a new Liberal government in power, led by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, priding itself on a refugee-friendly approach, there has been little movement.
Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale has said he will move toward implementing new independent oversight for CBSA, among other changes, but when he was asked point-blank whether he would end the detention of migrant children, he said he was unable to make that commitment.
“In my country when you’re handcuffed, it means you’re a criminal. But here in Canada I was cuffed and scared, because I didn’t do anything wrong.”
“I wish I could give an absolute, iron-clad undertaking on that point,” Goodale told the Senate committee hearing in May. “I need to make some changes in the system, including in the physical capacity of the system, in order to make such an unequivocal undertaking. I want to get to that point.”
Samira Ahmed, a lawyer for Justice for Children and Youth in Toronto who worked on Mojisola’s case, and helped drive her to school, said the whole situation provides more evidence that children don’t belong in immigration detention. Even though the child could go to her home school in this one case, it’s an exception not enshrined in the department’s practices, and therefore inapplicable to the hundreds of youth who come in and out of the system.
Normally, children in the facilities are provided a couple hours of class per day with a teacher when they stay for more than a week. It’s nothing compared to the standards of education for youth on the outside.
“CBSA doesn’t have the knowledge, skills, or willingness to assist young people who end up in their care. It has an easy time keeping young people in custody, and it’s a significant problem that seems to be on the rise,” Ahmed said in an interview.
In her experience, the center’s rigid, and seemingly arbitrary, rules would hit families hard. For example, Ahmed said the center’s manager confiscated vaseline Mojisola used to soothe nosebleeds caused by the center’s dry air. “I’m not sure why that happened,” Ahmed said. “Were they afraid the vaseline would melt through the bars and they would escape?”
She questioned what she describes as a “significant power imbalance” between those who run the facility and those staying there. “They’re in a disadvantaged position for getting access to the services and supports they need to function effectively as a child and to have all the rights a child should have,” she said.
That makes Canada unique in the Western world. Both the US and the UK have imposed time limits on how long the government can hold migrants in detention.
According to Public Safety spokesperson Scott Bardsley, the department is examining the CBSA’s immigration detention program and how to “provide the agency with appropriate review mechanisms.”
Bardsley added that unaccompanied minors who end up in the system are “generally released to family members or to a child protection agency” and that the average detention period for minors from 2014 to 2015 was less than two weeks.
“It’s a former three-star hotel with a fence around it.”
A spokesperson for CBSA told VICE News in an email that children are detained in immigration holding centers only “as a measure of last resort, taking into account criteria including the best interests of the children” and that CBSA officers are required to “consider all reasonable alternatives before detaining a minor for immigration purposes.”
Another CBSA spokesperson added that children “usually are not there long enough to go to school.”
But even when children, and adults, are let out, any trauma experienced in detention is likely to have prolonged impacts on their mental well-being and ability to feel safe in society.
Jaclyn landed at the airport in Toronto when she was 15 years old in 2014. She says she was fleeing the man her father forced her to marry a year earlier, after her mother died. “There was nobody to provide for me, and I was forced to get married because this man had money,” Jaclyn, who wished to use a different name and not specify her country of origin for fear of having her immigration status compromised, said in an interview at the FCJ refugee shelter in Toronto. “The man was almost twice my age and I couldn’t take it.”
I’m out, and that’s good, but when I really think back to it, I cry. And I don’t know why. Maybe it’s the fear of being forced to go back in there at any minute.”
But when she first arrived and went to customs, she says border agents placed metal handcuffs and took her to the immigration detention center until her situation could be assessed by an adjudicator. “In my country when you’re handcuffed, it means you’re a criminal. But here in Canada I was cuffed and scared, because I didn’t do anything wrong,” she said.
She was taken to a room in the center, without any further information about what was happening. She was terrified. She would only spend the next week there, after which she would be released with a local community group as her refugee claim progressed. “But I felt pain the whole time, I still feel it,” Jaclyn said. “My English was really bad then, and I didn’t know what they were talking about. I thought I would stay in that room forever.” For Jaclyn, it wasn’t horrible or dirty living conditions that made her upset, but the uncertainty and isolation.
She is reminded of the experience at least once a month when she reports back to officers there as part of her strict conditions of release. She is, under those conditions, not permitted to work or go to school. “I’m out, and that’s good, but when I really think back to it, I cry,” Jaclyn said. “And I don’t know why. Maybe it’s the fear of being forced to go back in there at any minute.”
“They are not jails,” Jason Kenney, Canada’s former immigration minister, told the CBC in 2012 when describing the new immigration holding center in Toronto. “In the case of the Toronto one, for example … it’s a former three-star hotel with a fence around it.”
The current accommodations would certainly not garner three stars, however.
Like a prison, visitors can come only at specific times and are only allowed to talk to detainees through plexiglass on phones with poor sound quality. No one except CBSA staff, a selection of vetted NGO workers, and some lawyers, are allowed into the living quarters. Children are beholden to a strict schedule, including meal and nap times, and parents are unable to leave their children alone even to shower or use the toilet. One of the few programs offered on a regular basis is a “Moms and Tots” program run by Romero House, where volunteers come in every second Saturday to play with any young children there, and offer parents a break.
The inner workings of both detention facilities in Toronto are shrouded in secrecy, as very few public groups and human rights advocates are allowed inside. Lawyers are often forced to speak with their clients in the visiting room behind plexiglass. And for the groups that are granted access, many are fearful that privilege could be revoked at any time if they speak out of turn or publicly criticize how things are run.
VICE News obtained private notes taken during meetings at the Toronto detention facility through an access to information request. It’s the only facility that has such meetings, referred to as a “quality of life” meeting, because it has the highest number of detainees, and a handful of non-profit organizations work inside the facility, including representatives from refugee shelters, the Canadian Red Cross, and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.
The notes provide a rare glimpse into daily life in the facility, the points of tension between CBSA and volunteers, and also the ways in which facility management is attempting to improve conditions there.
Meeting notes, mostly redacted, reference one complaint made by one of the NGOs in the facility. One worker who spoke with VICE News, but wished to remain anonymous over fears of not being able continue his work, said the complaint originated after a guard “forcibly pushed” a detainee and left him with a bruise. The notes go on to say that the facility manager denies the allegations.
The minutes from the meeting, from November 2015, also describe how CBSA management is “looking into” bringing in round-the-clock nurses to the facility as well as a psychologist. It also states that “cleaning is being done at a higher standard and monitored more frequently by the CBSA staff.”
Other concerns brought up included an “incident where expired baby formula was provided in the family wing,” something that the CBSA staff say was “dealt with immediately.”
There was supposed to be another quality of life meeting in February, but it was canceled around the time news broke that the facility had kept a 16-year-old Syrian boy in isolation.