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 ultimately end migrant incarceration alongside dangerous criminals.
The initiative by the B.C. government is a first victory of a national campaign to lobby provinces to end immigration-detention arrangements with Ottawa. The campaign’s organizers hope this will replicate across Canada, especially in Ontario, which has the highest number of migrants in custody.
In 2019-20, more than 8,800 migrants were detained in Canada — 19 per cent in a provincial facility — and 5,265 were held in Ontario, where immigration detainees are kept in a dozen facilities, with Maplehurst Correctional Complex in Milton having the largest share.
This week, the office of B.C. Public Safety Minister and Solicitor General Mike Farnworth has confirmed the review of the arrangement between B.C. Corrections and the Canada Border Services Agency. It will be complete by summer 2022.
“Work continues on the development of the framework and scope of the review. B.C. Corrections will be leading the review and will engage with both 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 violations died in custody. Critics are particularly concerned about the use of provincial prisons to hold migrants with the general jail population — 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.
British Columbia has had an immigration-detention agreement with Ottawa for more than three decades. It’s the first province targeted in a campaign launched last October by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International to end the practice in Canada. The groups’ #WelcomeToCanada campaign asks supporters to write to provincial leaders to discontinue their governments’ immigration detention agreements with Ottawa — more than 5,700 people have written to Premier John Horgan’s government.
“These facilities are not designed with immigration detention in mind. They’re designed to punish people. You’re dealing with a population that is most vulnerable, many have fled conflicts and experienced trauma and you just lock them up in a maximum-security jail,” said Samer Muscati of Human Rights Watch.
“They have no set date of release and oftentimes are held in solitary confinement. They’re handcuffed. There is this constant surveillance and restrictions. It has enormous 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 supervision services such as improved human and electronic monitoring systems — for example, performance bonds, cash deposits and electronic-reporting systems. It also committed $10.5 million toward better health services, including mental-health supports.
Feeling the systemic changes are moving at a glacial pace, advocates have decided to switch gears to go after the provinces and their contracts with the federal government.
“The targeting of these contracts is much easier than our usual sort of tools for legislative reform because all we need is for the provinces to give one year’s notice to walk away from the contract,” said Muscati.
“It’s not the province’s responsibility to detain (migrants) or implement border control measures. They can wash their hands of this and let the federal government figure out what to do next. So why are they involved and complicit in these human rights abuses?”
Although the B.C. government review is just the beginning, Muscati said advocates hope the move creates momentum for other provinces to follow suit.
Canada Border Services Agency runs its own immigration holding centres in Laval, Que., Surrey, B.C., and Toronto. It uses provincial jails to detain immigration detainees in other provinces, when there’s an overflow in its own facilities, or when an inmate poses danger to others. The agency pay provinces between $200 and $250 per 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 abuses,” said Muscati, adding that it makes it easy for Ottawa to wash it hands of the matter. “You can say, ‘Well, I’m not responsible for this person because he’s not in my facility.’”
Despite the Liberals’ commitment to detain migrants only as a last resort, a Human Rights Watch report last year found the number of people being held in immigration detention in Canada — including young children and those with mental-health issues — had continued to grow.
The 2019-20 total of more than 8,800 people — 138 of them children, 73 of them under the age of six — detained on “immigration hold” was a 41 per cent increase from 6,268 in 2016-17.
However, when the pandemic hit the incarcerated population, provincial authorizes began releasing inmates held for minor violations as well as many immigration detainees. In 2020-21, the border agency only held 1,605 migrants in detention.
“We see that detention wasn’t being used as a last resort if authorities were able to release so many people during COVID,” said Muscati. “Our concern is that things will go 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 reporter covering immigration for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @nkeung