In a “historic” move, British Columbia is terminating its agreement with the federal government to hold immigration detainees at its provincial jails.

On Thursday, B.C. Public Safety Minister and Solicitor General Mike Farnworth said the province is ending its contract with the Canada Border Services Agency on managing individuals held under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act.

The announcement came after a provincial review initiated last fall to examine all aspects of the arrangement, including its effect on public safety and whether it aligns with the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners as well as expectations set by Canadian courts.

“The review brought to light that aspects of the arrangement do not align with our government’s commitment to upholding human-rights standards or our dedication to pursuing social justice and equity for everyone,” Farnworth said in a statement.

“In light of these findings, the Province is ending its arrangement with the CBSA. B.C. Corrections will provide the CBSA with 12 months’ written notice as required under the current arrangement.”

The news was hailed by both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, which launched the #WelcomeToCanada campaign last year to lobby provinces and territories to end the practice of hold immigration detainees alongside dangerous criminals in jails.

“Today’s decision is a momentous step. We commend British Columbia on being the first province to stop locking up refugee claimants and migrants in its jails solely on immigration grounds,” said Ketty Nivyabandi, secretary-general of Amnesty International Canada.

“This is a true human-rights victory, one which upholds the dignity and rights of people who come to Canada in search of safety or a better life.”

In 2019-20, prior to the pandemic, more than 8,800 migrants were detained in Canada — 19 per cent in a provincial facility. In 2020-21, the number dropped to 1,605, with 40 per cent held in a provincial jail, as public health concerns amid the pandemic prompted the release of detainees who posed little risks to the public.

The impact B.C.’s move will have on the border agency’s detention capacity on the west coast isn’t yet known. Government data, however, shows the province had the largest number of immigration detainees — 1,470 in 2019-20, 310 in 2020-21 — second only to Ontario, which held 5,265 and 872 over the respective periods.

Canada’s immigration detention system came under scrutiny a few years ago after a handful of detainees held for immigration violations died in custody. Critics are particularly concerned about the use of provincial prisons to hold migrants with convicts — often over months and in some cases, years — on administrative grounds, pending removals from Canada.

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

University of British Columbia law professor Efrat Arbel said there’s no basis in law to hold an immigration detainees in correctional facilities and the mental health consequences are profound and extreme.

She hopes the revelation from Thursday’s announcement will drive the CBSA to take a more rigorous approach to evaluating who should be held in immigration detention to begin with, and recognize many people need not be held there.

“When COVID hit in 2020,” Arbel noted, “we saw that immigration detention numbers went drastically down. There are ways in which to accommodate immigration detainees that don’t require immigration holding centres or correctional facilities.

“Most immigration detainees can be held in ways that ensure that the needs of CBSA are met — that is, individuals are accounted for and so they can appear for their immigration proceedings. But that does not require holding people behind bars or depriving them of their fundamental liberty or human dignity.”

The #WelcomeToCanada campaign began in British Columbia in October and has since expanded to Quebec and Nova Scotia.

“We are thrilled that B.C. has taken this historic step,” said Samer Muscati, associate disability-rights director at Human Rights Watch. “We urge other provinces and the federal government to follow suit by ending this harmful practice across the country, and to get on the path to abolishing immigration detention.”

Currently, the border agency pays provinces between $200 and $250 per day to hold each detainee.

Nicholas Keung is a Toronto-based reporter covering immigration for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @nkeung