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Canada's Incarceration of Migrants Is 'Cruel and Inhuman,' New Report Says

The University of Toronto's report focuses on the mental health implications of detaining migrants in jail, arguing that even incarceration for a short period of time creates or exacerbates the problem.

by Rachel Browne
Jun 18 2015, 5:00pm

Photo of February protest outside the Lindsay, Ontario prison, via End Immigration Detention Network.

JJ has been detained in a maximum security prison in Lindsay, Ontario for 22 months. Like the other inmates, he has to wear an orange jumpsuit and spends most days locked inside his cell, sometimes for 17 hours straight. Lockdowns are frequent and security officials strip-search the inmates every time they enter or leave the building, which is surrounded by a 16-foot-high fence topped with barbed wire.

But unlike his fellow inmates who are serving criminal sentences or awaiting court proceedings, JJ has not been charged with any crime and has no idea when or if he'll ever get released.

He's one of thousands of migrants seeking status who are regularly held in provincial jails across Canada — some as long as 10 years, a practice a new report released Thursday from the University of Toronto's International Human Rights Program (IHRP) says is "cruel and inhuman," and a flagrant violation of Canada's commitments to international human rights law.

"Canada has entered a new era where the norm is to treat non-citizens as...illegals, threats to security, or criminals — in short, people less deserving of basic rights," says the 122-page report, which the authors will present to the UN Human Rights Committee in July, in hopes it will urge Canada to reform its detention regime.

The report's findings show that detaining migrants in jail, even for a short period of time, often creates or exacerbates mental health conditions among them.

"It's clear that detention, especially in a maximum security jail, is catastrophic for mental health," Renu Mandhane, IHRP's executive director and editor of the report, told VICE News.

The report comes days after a 39-year-old man held in immigration detention at Lindsay died after he was sent to hospital. Very few details about his death have been made public and it is currently under investigation by Ontario's Special Investigations Unit.

In 2013, Lucía Vega Jiménez a Mexican woman without status in Canada, hanged herself while awaiting deportation in immigration detention in British Columbia. After a lengthy inquest into her death, the province's coroner made a list of recommendations, including that Canada create an oversight body for CBSA.

The report notes at least nine people have died while in immigration detention in Canada since 2000.

Related: Feds Are Deporting Legal Immigrants For Non-Violent Drug Crimes

Mandhane and other report authors interviewed 10 current and former detainees, who were imprisoned from two months to eight years. "The detainees we spoke to who had serious mental health issues coming in talked about how being in jail really increased their levels of anxiety and depression," she said.

JJ, who does not want his real name used, told VICE News he was apprehended by officers with the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) in 2013 in the Ontario town where he lived and worked for 20 years after he fled persecution in his home country in the Middle East. His refugee claim was denied in 1991 and he went underground, fearing for his life if he were ever sent back home. The week before he was arrested, his wife, a Canadian who had started the process to sponsor him, died of a heart attack.

He was transferred to Lindsay and says he did not have access to a lawyer for more than one year. Since he was detained, JJ describes feeling severely depressed and says has no access to mental health services.

"They treat us okay here. But the health conditions are not good because of the stress on our minds. Sometimes I get up in the middle of the night with nightmares, and now I'm on medication to digest my food," JJ said. "I used to have a great memory, but now it's really going downhill."

Other detainees interviewed for the report include a man called Uday who was detained by CBSA officers in 2011 after he arrived from the Middle East and they could not verify his identity or country of origin. Uday had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and needed medication. CBSA transferred him to the Lindsay jail, where he was kept for three years, and did not have access to a lawyer for almost two years.

Related: Migrant Children: Undocumented and Underage

CBSA officials can detain migrants in cases where their identity is in question, if they think they will go underground and skip their immigration hearings, or when they are believed to be a threat to public safety. In 2013, more than 7300 migrants were detained by CBSA. In comparison, 429,247 migrants were detained in the US by the US Department of Homeland Security in 2011, and the US has the capacity to hold 34,000 immigrants a day. 

Detention is supposed to be a measure of last resort, but the report notes the number of migrants held in jails is rising every year.

Most detained migrants are held in one of Canada's three designated immigration holding centers, located in Toronto, Laval, and Vancouver, that operate like medium-security jails. However, nearly one third of detained migrants will be held in provincial jails. This can be for a number of reasons, including overcrowding at the detention centers, and if they are detained in part of the country that does not have a designated immigration holding center.

Pierre Deveau, a spokesperson for CBSA, told VICE News in an email that the CBSA "takes the issue of mental health seriously" and that "detention is to be avoided or considered only as a last resort for…persons with behavioral or mental health problems. However, if detention is required…detention of vulnerable individuals should be for the shortest time possible and primarily focused on supporting the removal of that individual."

However, the report notes that detainees are often transferred from immigration holding centers to jails because they exhibit mental health issues.

"It's completely perverse that because a migrant has a mental health issue, they would be placed in more restrictive conditions of confinement. When you have a serious mental health issue, restrictive forms of confinement actually make it worse," Mandhane said.

And unlike prisoners in the criminal justice system, there's little or no legal protocol or oversight of the transfer or detention of migrants. "Once a detainee finds him or herself in provincial jail, they fall into a legal black hole where neither CBSA nor the provincial jail has clear authority over their conditions of confinement," said Mandhane. "The decision to detain somebody is governed by law, but the decision about where to put them is a decision that has no legal parameters."

Mandhane says Canada needs to follow the example of the US and countries in Europe that have imposed a cap on how long migrants can be detained by the government until they must be released into the community. The report recommends the Canadian government release detainees after 90 days if they are unable to deport them, and they are not found to be a threat to society, as is the case in the UK and the US. The UK is moving to impose a 28-day limit on how long migrants can be detained while the government decides on their claim.

The report also calls on the Canadian government to create an oversight body or an ombudsperson that would field complaints about detention and to explore alternatives to detention. These alternatives could include more options to release migrants on bail with specific conditions.

"Community release on bail is something that's employed all the time in the criminal justice system even for people who have allegedly committed violent crimes," Mandhane said. "And there's no reason that detainees can't be released into the community on bail or surety."

Mandhane sent the president of CBSA, Luc Portelance, the report's recommendations in May. He replied on June 2 saying that he had reviewed them, but "was not in a position to provide a detailed response" since the report was not finalized yet. Portelance added that CBSA is "currently implementing a National Detention Strategy that will transform program delivery by implementing measures that renew the detention service model."

Mandhane says the report is not meant to promote the idea that everyone has a right to be in Canada. "There are people who might not be able to stay here, for whatever reason," she said. "But when they are here, and while we figure out their status, we can't do that in a way that's arbitrary and cruel."

Follow Rachel Browne on Twitter: @rp_browne

Watch the VICE News Documentary, 'Migrant Prisons of Libya: Europe or Die.'

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