HANSARD: Canada should stop incarcerating migrants and asylum seekers in jails

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship
Adjournment Proceedings
February 7th, 2023 / 6:20 p.m.

Jenny Kwan Vancouver East, BC

Mr. Speaker, under the Liberal government's watch, thousands of innocent refugees and migrants are being locked up in prisons, treated like criminals, simply for seeking safety and a better life in Canada.

On November 14, 2022, I asked the government whether it would stop incarcerating migrants and asylum seekers in provincial jails, as has been called for by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. In response to my question, the parliamentary secretary said that, “immigration detention is a measure of last resort.” That is the same message the Minister of Public Safety's office told CBC, indicating that, “the government continues to seek alternatives”.

The government's record tells the true story. Every year between 2016 and 2020, under the Liberals, the number of immigration detainees increased, and 8,825 people were detained between April 2019 and March 2020 alone. The minister's stock answers are no comfort to the thousands of people who come to Canada seeking safety, yet end up being locked away, including 136 children who were housed in detention during the same period.

Canada is also among the only countries in the global north without a legal limit on the length of time people can be in immigration detention. In other words, Canada locks them up and throws away the key. This is wrong. Since 2016, 300 people were detained for more than a year. One man was detained for 11 years, and 17 people have died in immigration detention since 2000, most of them in provincial jails.

Alberta recently became the last province to announce that it is severing its agreement with the CBSA to end the practice of detaining immigrants in provincial jails. The province joined Manitoba and Nova Scotia, led by British Columbia, which are all cancelling their contracts, but the federal government seems to be missing in action and needs to take leadership by ending immigration detention, full stop.

A 2021 report by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch documents serious human rights violations experienced by immigration detainees in Canada, particularly those with psychosocial disabilities. Immigration detainees are often subjected to solitary confinement, shackled and held with violent offenders, fearing for their safety. Researchers also found that Black detainees appear to be incarcerated longer and are more likely to be detained in provincial jails, while people with mental health conditions disproportionately receive coercive treatment. In fact, CBSA officials told researchers that people with mental health conditions may be detained in provincial jails to manage them in light of their behaviour.

The negative effects of incarceration can be severe and may impact former immigration detainees for years after they are released. Recent media reports have revealed the horrific conditions experienced in immigration detention. Abdirahman Warssama came to Canada from Somalia and was locked up in a maximum security prison for five years and seven months, even though he was not considered dangerous. During his time in prison, he was beaten and experienced 199 lockdowns during a single year. During these lockdowns, detainees are locked in their cells, sometimes for several days, without access to showers, a phone or the ability to go outside. Another man who escaped war in his home country was locked up in an immigration holding centre in Laval for months, despite having no criminal history.

This is wrong. This needs to stop. 

Pam Damoff Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Public Safety

Mr. Speaker, I want to begin by thanking the member for Vancouver East for her ongoing advocacy on this issue.

Canada has a robust and fair refugee system. Immigration detention is a measure of last resort, and I am committed to working with the minister, CBSA, stakeholders across the country and the hon. member to expand alternatives to detention.

Over the past year, I had numerous discussions with the hon. Lloyd Axworthy and the hon. Allan Rock and Hanna Gros from Human Rights Watch. Their advocacy and advice on immigration detention has been invaluable, and I know this is an issue the minister is seized with.

We made significant progress in implementing alternatives to detention and in reducing our use of detention, but we know there is more work to do. Under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, individuals can only be detained when grounds for detention exist and after all alternatives to detention have been considered. 

While detention always defaults to an immigration holding centre, in regions where there is no centre the CBSA relies on the use of provincial correctional facilities to house high-risk detainees. I visited the immigration detention in Milton several years ago and spoke to several of those who were being held there. It is one of the reasons I am committed to working with those who want to see change in the system. I also met with Matthew House staff. They offer an outstanding program to support those facing deportation and house them in community. 

Detention in provincial correctional facilities is only used sparingly. As of November 17, 2022, 138 immigration detainees were housed in a provincial correctional facility, 189 were housed in an immigration holding centre and 11,233 were enrolled in an alternative to detention. 

The government is committed to further decreasing the use of provincial correctional facilities. That is why we invested in new and upgraded immigration holding centres, including one in Surrey in 2020 and one in Montreal in 2022. With these investments, we have been able to reduce our reliance on provincial correctional facilities and provide better services to those being detained. 

The government is committed to treating all detainees in a dignified and humane way. 

One important condition in all our agreements with provinces is that they authorize the Canadian Red Cross to visit correctional facilities. This is to monitor and report on the conditions of detention and treatment of detainees to ensure they are treated fairly according to domestic legislation and international obligations. As the member opposite is aware, the Red Cross' findings and the CBSA action plans are available on the CBSA website. 

The CBSA continues to work to create a better and fairer immigration detention system, one that treats all persons with compassion and dignity while upholding public safety and the integrity of our immigration system. 

The government is committed to protecting the safety of Canadians while upholding the rights of detainees. 

Jenny Kwan Vancouver East, BC

Mr. Speaker, it is simply wrong to have immigration detention for people who pose no security risk to Canadians or have no serious criminality issues. There is no reason for that. 

In the case I mentioned earlier, CBSA's own document, which was obtained by the CBC, said that he posed no risk. He posed zero risk to Canadians. As a result of the detention, he lost his job, he lost his apartment and he lost his belongings. 

In other countries like the European Union, detention has had a maximum length of six months since 2008. Argentina does not use immigration detention at all. Other countries have recognized that people have not committed a crime and should not be locked up indefinitely, yet Canada continues to do this. CBSA continues to incarcerate migrants and destroy people's lives. It remains the only major law enforcement agency without independent civilian oversight. 

This is so wrong. Enough of this gross human rights violation, enough of saying that we are doing something and then not doing enough. Let us end immigration detentions for those who do not have serious criminality issues or are not a threat to public safety.

Pam Damoff Oakville North—Burlington, ON

Mr. Speaker, I remain committed to listening to the voices of stakeholders calling for reform. 

Under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, individuals can only be detained when grounds for detention exist and after all alternatives to detention have been considered. 

I commit to the member opposite I will continue to advocate within government and in this place to call for an expansion of the eligibility for alternatives to detention and to invest in programs that support the mental health of all migrants and refugee claimants. 

While we have made improvements, we also recognize there is more work to do. Our government remains committed to ensuring all detainees are treated in a consistent, dignified and humane way that is in line with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

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