Most Canadians would shudder at the thought of women being shackled to their hospital beds after giving birth. Yet that is exactly what happens to a specific class of women who, having come to Canada seeking safety, are detained even though they pose no threat to the public.
Detained refugees experience the trauma of being shackled and chained on their journey to and from medical care and during certain procedures in Canadian hospitals, according to a brief presented to the House of Commons last month by McGill University researchers Janet Cleveland, Cécile Rousseau and Rachel Kronick. In addition, they reported many detained refugees forgo health-care visits for fear of being shackled and humiliated.
This shameful state of affairs represents just one of the many abusive practices currently applied against some of the world’s most vulnerable people once they arrive in Canada. It also shines a spotlight on the devastating consequences of both the Balanced Refugee Reform Act passed last year and Jason Kenney’s further repressive Protecting Canada’s Immigration System Act, introduced last week.
Fallout from both pieces of legislation include increased detention and deportation of those who, through no fault of their own, have become an easy scapegoat in the so-called Global War on Terror. And the Canadian government has not been shy about tarring the millions forced to wander the globe in search of safety as the petrie dish in which the terrorist virus incubates.
As with most aspects of the “national security” economy, detention and deportation is a huge and growing business. Last year, the Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) released an evaluation of their “Detentions and Removals Program” that framed their analysis within the context of “securing Canada’s borders in support of national security priorities.” Over $92 million are annually spent on detention and removal of human beings, the report states, with some $22 million of that under the rubric of “Public Safety Anti-Terrorism.” The report, a remarkably lifeless document that doesn’t document the fear and terror experienced by individuals seeking asylum, speaks instead to achieving efficiencies in a system designed to ensure “those who pose a threat to the integrity of Canada’s immigration laws and/or Canadian society” are detained and removed as quickly as possible. But the report fails, like most of Canada’s legislation in this field, to define terms like threats and national security.
Without reflecting on the major faults with Canada’s refugee determination system, CBSA concludes that “it is clear that the need to detain and remove foreign nationals will continue.” Consequently, one of Canada’s fastest growing exports is the traffic in traumatized human beings. Between 2006 and 2011, CBSA carried out 83,382 deportations of women, children, and men, while from 2004-2010, there were 72,000-plus refugees arbitrarily detained. Among those thousands deported were women fleeing male violence (indeed, there are high profile cases of Mexican women who, having been sent back, are found murdered) as well as Roma fleeing a wave of racist violence and state-supported discrimination across Eastern Europe.
Kenney’s new legislation reflects the pervasive attitude throughout the immigration bureaucracy that refugees are guilty parties hiding something rather than survivors of war and torture who need counselling and support. The CBSA report, for example, reports the consistent feedback of officers who wish to have better training not to assist those arriving in desperate straits, but to strengthen their cases against refugees at the hearing stage and thereby add notches to their deportation belts.
Notably, the McGill brief found that the hundreds of Tamils who were detained after arriving by boat in B.C. reported that among the most traumatizing of experiences — having survived a horrific war zone in Sri Lanka — were lengthy and repeated interrogations by CBSA officers that occurred between 3 and 20 times and lasted as long as eight hours.
The logic of CBSA, however, is that these human cargo are meant to be inspected and, if they do not fit a particular profile, must be stamped “return to sender” before they can access the limited resources available to asylum seekers. Indeed, the CBSA evaluation of its operations stated a general concern that the agency needed to deport as many people possible in short order “prior to additional avenues of recourse becoming available,” an admission that the rights of the asylum seeker are considered an annoyance preventing the factory-like efficiency of roundups and removals.
The McGill report further notes 95 per cent of those detained are for identification purposes and concerns about an individual showing up for their hearing, neither of which poses a threat. Many refugees have to come to Canada with false documents for their own safety, but are nonetheless thrown either into a prison or an immigration holding centre which replicates the worst aspects of prisons (complete with razor wire fences, security guards, surveillance cameras, and regimented wake-up and meal times). Detention remains indeterminate, and though the average detention time in 2009-2010 was 28 days, the McGill report notes that, especially for traumatized individuals, even a few days behind bars can trigger symptoms of post-traumatic stress (PTSD) and other debilitating conditions.
Indeed, their study compared the lives of detained versus non-detained refugee claimants and found that the majority of refugees experienced on average nine severe traumas before coming here, from physical and sexual assault to being close to death and the murder of friends and family. Following a median detention of 18 days, over 75 per cent were clinically depressed, two-thirds clinically anxious, and a third exhibited PTSD symptoms. Those detained were twice as likely as non-detained to show PTSD symptoms, while depression rates were 50 per cent higher among those detained.
Meanwhile, a companion report to the McGill study, written for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) by Delphine Nakache, notes that CBSA does not keep adequate enough records to record variations in age, gender and periods of time in detention. However, the report found CBSA’s own statistics reveal 27 per cent of asylum seekers are detained in penal institutions even though less than 6 per cent are suspected of criminal activity or behaviour. Those held in jails are detained for longer periods than those in immigration holding centres, and detainees who become suicidal or exhibit behavioural or mental health issues are frequently sent to jail and placed in solitary confinement, further traumatizing individuals who require counseling, not punishment.
The UN report recommends detention only in the most exceptional of circumstances, and quotes from the respected International Commission of Jurists, which finds that poor and overcrowded conditions for migrants in detention “have regularly been found by international courts and human rights bodies to violate the right to be free from cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.” Canadian courts have also affirmed that alternatives to detention should always be considered by immigration officials, but CBSA, like its brother agencies in the national security apparatus, tends to ignore or bypass such jurisprudence whenever possible.
Kenney’s legislation mandating one year of detention without bail for refugees who arrive in Canada by “irregular means,” such as by a boat, translates into an increase in the human misery documented above. In addition, the fetishization of “securing” identity documents places refugees at further risk because, rather than accepting a driver’s licence or national identity card, continued detention is called for while CBSA seeks ID verification abroad, which could lead to the detainee’s ID being disclosed in the home country. Needless to say, investigative detention has been found by the Supreme Court of Canada to be a form of arbitrary detention.
But CBSA continues moving on. While Canadian airlines handle many of the agency’s deportations, the search is on for “alternative service delivery arrangements,” code for privatization. Among those making a profit off this trafficking in trauma is Skyservice Business Aviation, a firm already on standby whenever someone bound for torture under the secret hearing security certificate process is ready for rendering to a country like Egypt or Algeria.
Skyservice makes great efforts to accommodate CBSA requests for deportation flights, even pulling their medevac aircraft out of rotation if need be. Documents obtained under an Access to Information request reveal an email from Mike Vallee of Skyservice to Reg Williams of the Greater Toronto Enforcement Centre thanking Williams for the deportation business, stating “it is one of the more rewarding (exciting) aspects of life here in the hangar.” Skyservice has performed “removals” to such human rights abusing countries as Egypt, Algeria and Somalia (an email with respect to the Somalia flight suggests throwing a “few Kenyans” on board as well.) On other flights, Skyservice will hire members of the Montreal Urban Police tactical squad to escort deportees.
As with all aspects of privatization, controls over issues such as privacy and personal safety of the deported individual are even further debased. In an Albanian deportation, for example, Skyservice writes to CBSA that they need further personal details on an individual being deported, but does that information get shared with a receiving government that will then use it to harass or detain the individual? “The Albanian government must be provided proof that this individual is actually an Albanian,” the CBSA memo reads, noting “there have been incidents in the past where the detainee turned out to be from another country.”
Refugees and immigrants in Canada have traditionally suffered a lower standard of justice than Canadian citizens, but the precedents created in repressing the former group eventually become a wedge designed to deprive everyone else of their rights. And while thousands of Canadians have rightfully expressed outrage over the fact that the government seeks to monitor all of their Internet communications, the deprivations of liberty increasingly suffered by migrants will, hopefully, similarly shock the conscience of Canadians, spur them to action, and end this insidious aspect of Canada’s “national security” strategy.
Matthew Behrens is a freelance writer and social justice advocate who co-ordinates the Homes not Bombs non-violent direct action network. He has worked closely with the targets of Canadian and U.S. ‘national security’ profiling for many years.
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