Every year, hundreds of migrants and failed refugee claimants in Canada are left to languish in jails as opposed to the holding centers designed to house migrants — even though they haven't committed any crime. And new figures obtained by VICE News show that dozens of teens have also been in the same situation.
According to documents obtained by VICE News under an access to information request, 28 migrant teens detained by the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) were held in Canadian jails from 2010 to 2015. In addition, a 16-year-old detained for a week at the Toronto youth jail in 2013 appears to hold both Canadian and American citizenship.
One 17-year-old Korean male who was kept at the juvenile detention facility in Brampton, Ontario for 45 days in 2011 because CBSA determined he wouldn't appear for his next immigration proceeding. That same year, a 15-year-old Eritrean male was held at another youth jail in northern Ontario for 42 days for the same reason.
Like adult migrants held in jail, these migrant teens, aged 14 to 17, rub shoulders with criminal offenders, sometimes for more than a month even though they haven't been charged with any crime.
The Burnaby Youth Center in BC detained the highest number of migrants, 10, while the Roy McMurtry Youth Center in Brampton, Ontario held eight, according to the figures.
According to the documents, the overall number of migrant teens held in jails for juvenile offenders has declined, though this number might not provide the complete picture as the data is based only on the facilities that responded.
CBSA can detain migrants seeking status when it's believed they will not show up for their immigration proceedings, if their identity is in question, or if they are deemed a risk to public safety, or when there's not enough room in one of the three immigration holding centers in Canada — in Toronto, Vancouver, and Laval in Quebec. The holding center in Vancouver is meant to house immigration detainees for up to 72 hours, whereas migrants have been kept in the other two centers for more than a year.
For Samer Muscati, director of the International Human Rights Program at the University of Toronto, these data further show the need for independent oversight of the CBSA.
"Children should be detained as only as a matter of last resort, and looking at the data, it's not clear that these cases merit detention," Muscati said. "From what we know about the conditions of these facilities, they are worse [than detention centers]. We have to keep in mind these children have not been convicted of a crime, that's not why they're there and they're being held in a criminal facilities"
"I'm not shocked unfortunately by CBSA practices anymore," he added. "But it's alarming we have children held in this way when there's no need for it when they don't pose a danger for anyone."
According to the CBSA statistics, only three teens were held in jail by CBSA in 2015; two in the Burnaby Youth Center and one at the Roy McMurtry Youth Center in Brampton. In Burnaby, a 16-year-old male from Mali was held for 35 days for identity reasons, and a 17-year-old Chinese female was held there for 14 days on the grounds she wouldn't appear for her next immigration proceeding.
And according to numbers provided to VICE News from the BC Ministry of Family and Development, one family of four — a mother, father, daughter, and son — were housed separately at the Burnaby Youth Center from December 19, 2014 to March 26, 2015. A family of two brothers were housed for just over a month there in 2015, separate from the juvenile offender population. And a family of two siblings were housed, also separately, for two weeks in March 2015.
CBSA spokesperson Line Guibert-Wolff told VICE News there are "exceptional circumstances, where an unaccompanied minor who may pose a security risk or a danger to the public may be detained in a youth facility," but in general, unaccompanied minors are not held in a detention facility, but released into the care of provincial child protection services.
When asked why the youth aren't transferred to immigration holding centres instead of jails, Guibert Wolff said that the CBSA does not "routinely transfer individuals between provinces."
Peter Spadoni, a spokesperson for Ontario's Ministry of Children and Youth Services in Ontario, told VICE News in an email that a youth may be placed in a jail "if their background or behavior means that they cannot be detained in a CBSA immigration facility." He added that "[a]t the end of the day, our top priority is the safety and well-being of any youth in the care of our youth justice system including those on an immigration detention warrant."
There's been a spike in young inmates assaulting each other at the Burnaby Youth Center in recent years, and it has also been accused of keeping its young inmates in solitary confinement, something that's only supposed to be used in exceptional circumstances.
The CBSA, one of the only law enforcement agencies in Canada that has no independent oversight, has been under renewed scrutiny after two migrants on immigration holds died suddenly in Ontario jails earlier this year. In February, the story of a Syrian teen being held in isolation at the Toronto immigration holding center also made headlines. Some 14 adult migrants have died in CBSA custody 2000.
Scott Bardsley, a spokesperson for the department of Public Safety told VICE News in an email the government is looking at "how best to provide the agency [CBSA] with appropriate review mechanisms."
According to CBSA policy documents also released under Access to Information, children under 18 years of age should be detained "for the shortest period of time." And for unaccompanied minors, "the preferred option is to release with conditions to the care of child welfare agencies, if those organizations are able to provide an adequate guarantee that the minor child will report to the immigration authorities as requested."
According to Statistics Canada, there were 1,019 young people in custody on any given day, resulting in a youth incarceration rate of 6 per 10,000 youth population.
Follow Rachel Browne on Twitter: @rp_browne