British Columbia poised to deliver first blow to immigration detention system

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British Columbia is set to review its contract with the federal government to house immigration detainees in provincial jails, a move that advocates hope will end the incarceration of migrants in alongside dangerous criminals.

The BC government’s initiative is the first victory in a national campaign to pressure provinces to end immigration detention agreements with Ottawa. Campaign organizers hope this will be repeated across Canada, particularly in Ontario, which has the highest number of detained migrants.

In 2019-20, more than 8,800 migrants were detained in Canada – 19% in a provincial facility – and 5,265 were detained in Ontario, where immigration detainees are held in a dozen facilities, the complex Maplehurst Correctional Center in Milton having the largest share.

This week, the office of BC Public Safety Minister and Solicitor General Mike Farnworth confirmed the review of the arrangement between BC Corrections and the Canada Border Services Agency. It will be completed by summer 2022.

“Work continues on developing the framework and scope of the review. BC Corrections will lead the review and work with Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch,” a ministry spokesperson told The Star in an email.

Canada’s immigration detention system came under scrutiny a few years ago after a handful of detainees held for immigration offenses died in custody. Critics are particularly concerned about the use of provincial jails to hold migrants along with the general prison population – often for months and in some cases, years – for administrative reasons, pending deportation from Canada.

Across the country, more than 70 correctional facilities are used to hold federal immigration detainees, who are considered a flight risk or a threat to public safety or themselves.

British Columbia has had an immigration detention agreement with Ottawa for more than three decades. It is the first province targeted by a campaign launched last October by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International to end this practice in Canada. The groups’ #WelcomeToCanada campaign is asking supporters to write to provincial leaders to end their government’s immigration detention deals with Ottawa – more than 5,700 people have written to Prime Minister John Horgan’s government.

“These facilities are not designed for the detention of migrants. They are designed to punish people. You are dealing with a most vulnerable population, many of whom have fled conflict and suffered trauma and you are simply locking them up in a maximum security prison,” said Samer Muscati of Human Rights Watch.

“They have no set release date and are often held in solitary confinement. They are handcuffed. There is this constant surveillance and restrictions. This has huge impacts on their mental health.

In 2016, then-Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale unveiled a new national strategy to address longstanding concerns about the length and conditions of immigration detention.

The plan included $5 million to increase “alternatives to detention” through community monitoring services such as improved human and electronic monitoring systems – for example, performance bonds, cash deposits and systems. electronic declaration. It also committed $10.5 million for better health services, including mental health supports.

Sensing that systemic change is moving at a glacial pace, advocates have decided to shift gears to go after the provinces and their contracts with the federal government.

“Targeting these contracts is much easier than our usual legislative reform tools, because all we need is for the provinces to give a year’s notice to withdraw from the contract,” Muscati said.

“It is not the province’s responsibility to detain (migrants) or implement border control measures. They can wash their hands of it and let the federal government decide what to do next. So why are they involved and complicit in these human rights violations? »

While the B.C. government’s review is just the beginning, Muscati said advocates hope the move will create momentum for other provinces to follow suit.

The Canada Border Services Agency operates its own immigration holding centers in Laval, Quebec, Surrey, British Columbia and Toronto. It uses provincial jails to detain immigrants detained in other provinces, when there is an overflow in its own facilities, or when an inmate poses a danger to others. The agency pays the provinces between $200 and $250 a day for each detainee.

“It’s very easy to pass the buck and for immigration detainees to fall through the cracks. No one wants to take responsibility for these rights violations,” Muscati said, adding that it was easy for Ottawa to wash its hands of it. “You can say, ‘Well, I’m not responsible for this person because they’re not at my facility.'”

Despite the Liberals’ pledge to detain migrants only as a last resort, a Human Rights Watch report last year found that the number of people held in immigration detention in Canada – including young children and people suffering from mental health problems – had continued to increase.

The total of more than 8,800 people in 2019-20 – including 138 children, including 73 under the age of six – held in “immigration detention” was a 41% increase from 6,268 in 2016-2017.

However, when the pandemic hit the prison population, provincial authorities began releasing inmates held for minor offenses as well as many immigration detainees. In 2020-21, the border agency detained only 1,605 migrants.

“We find that detention was not used as a last resort if authorities were able to release so many people during COVID,” Muscati said. “Our concern is for things to get back to business as usual.”

The #WelcomeToCanada campaign has just started in Quebec and is expected to reach Queen’s Park after the Ontario election in June.

Nicholas Keung is a Toronto-based journalist who covers immigration for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @nkeung

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