Humans Rights Watch has released a 100-page report of the impact on the mental health of immigrants of Canada's detention policies entitled “ ‘I Didn’t Feel Like a Human in There’: Immigration Detention in Canada and Its Impact on Mental Health”. The report documents the abuse of people in immigration detention that results in them being "regularly handcuffed, shackled, and held with little to no contact with the outside world." Often they have no set release date and are held for months or years, with many placed in provincial jails with the rest of the jail population or even placed in solitary confinement. Those or mental health problems experience face even furthre discrimination. The fact that many more have been released during Covid to prevent the spread of infection without a rise in crime or other problems shows that this detention is not necessary for the vast majority of detainees. However, for "those who remained incarcerated, conditions of detention became harsher". It is therefore time to change the long-term policies to release many more immigrants than in the past as Covid ends and to treat those still detained much better.
Despite its reputation as a refugee-welcoming and multicultural country, Canada incarcerates thousands of people on immigration-related grounds every year, including people who are fleeing persecution, those seeking employment and a better life, and people who have lived in Canada since childhood. Immigration detainees are held for non-criminal purposes but endure some of the most restrictive conditions of confinement in the country, including maximum security jails and solitary confinement, with no set release date.
Figures from the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) reveal that the number of immigration detainees incarcerated in Canada has increased every fiscal year between 2016-17 and 2019-20, peaking in fiscal year 2019-20 with a total of 8,825 people in immigration detention. Since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic in March 2020, Canadian authorities have released immigration detainees at unprecedented rates, providing clear evidence that there are viable alternatives to depriving people of their liberty for indeterminate periods of time. For many of those who remained incarcerated, conditions of detention became harsher, with far more frequent lockdowns and limited access to phones and showers. During the first year of the pandemic, immigration detainees went on hunger strike three times at the Montreal-area immigration holding center. The full report can be read at the url below.
CBSA has sweeping police powers–including the powers of arrest, detention, and search and seizure–but it remains the only major law enforcement agency in Canada without independent civilian oversight to review policies or investigate misconduct. CBSA’s mistreatment of immigration detainees is widely reported across Canada by legal representatives, advocates, mental health professionals, frontline workers supporting immigration detainees, and former immigration detainees themselves.
The agency has full discretion over where immigration detainees are held. Between fiscal years 2016-17 and 2019-20, approximately two-thirds of immigration detainees were held in immigration holding centers, which resemble medium security prisons dedicated exclusively to immigration detainees, in the provinces of Ontario, Quebec, and British Columbia. During this period, CBSA also incarcerated thousands of immigration detainees–1,932 in 2019-20 alone–in provincial jails, alongside criminally accused individuals awaiting court proceedings and criminally convicted individuals serving sentences of up to two years. Many of these provincial jails are maximum-security facilities. A minority of immigration detainees were held in other facilities, such as police stations. Following the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, CBSA held about half of all immigration detainees in provincial jails, up from about a fifth of detainees prior to the pandemic.
While immigration detainees are not serving criminal sentences, they are often treated like people incarcerated for criminal offences: handcuffed, shackled, searched, subjected to solitary confinement, and restricted to small spaces with rigid routines and under constant surveillance, with severely limited access to the outside world. In provincial jails, many immigration detainees are confined in tense and even dangerous environments where they may be subjected to violence. Immigration detainees who are from communities of color, particularly detainees who are Black, appear to be incarcerated for longer periods in immigration detention and they are often detained in provincial jails rather than immigration holding centers.