UN message to Canada: Detention should be used only as a last resort for migrants

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Renu Mandhane opened her three-minute presentation to the United Nations in an unconventional way.

She read a letter from Tyron Richard, a 27-year-old immigration detainee inside the Central East Correctional Centre in Lindsay, ON. 

"The living conditions of my detention are very challenging, mentally. We are often locked down, sometimes for the entire day," Richard's letter states. "We receive searches that require us to get completely naked. Sixteen and a half hours a day are spend locked in a small cell. The majority of persons here are from Toronto, which makes it very difficult for our families to visit us."

She said she could see how the 18 members of the UN Committee on Human Rights -- human rights experts from around the world -- were moved.

"I really was trying to personalize what this long term indefinite detention feels like for somebody that's experiencing it," she said.

Her research and presentation focused on immigration detainees -- people who are not detained for a criminal offense but for not having valid immigration status.

Her presentation took place on July 7, and the UN released recommendations in response to it in a report on July 23.

The report says the UN is concerned that individuals who enter Canada irregularly can be detained for an indefinite period of time.

"The State party should refrain from detaining irregular migrants for an indefinite period of time and should ensure that detention is used as a measure of last resort," the report reads.

The UN is also concerned that individuals from Designated Countries of Origin -- or "safe countries" that don't persecute their citizens -- have a hard time filing refugee claims.

"The State party should review the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act in order to provide refugee claimants from 'safe countries' with access to an appeal hearing before the Refugee Appeal Division," the report reads.

The report also recommends that all refugee claimants and irregular migrants should have access to mental health care services -- something Mandhane's presentations alleges they don't.

Mandhane is the director of the University of Toronto's International Human Rights Program. She came to the UN to present findings from her report entitled "We Have No Rights: arbitrary imprisonment and cruel treatment of migrants with mental health issues in Canada." The report, published June 30, 2015, has been downloaded over 10,000 times.

Canada detains approximately 7,000 undocumented people per year. There are three designated immigration holding centers (IHCs) for these detainees, but, due to lack of space, one third of immigration detainees are held in provincial prisons.

"We found that detention in a jail, even for a short period, exacerbated and created mental health issues. An uncertainty as to the length of detention was a constant source of stress and anxiety," Mandhane told the UN.

Her research found that migrants with mental health issues are discriminated against because they are presumptively held in maximum-security prisons under the "erroneous" assumption they will have better access to mental healthcare in jail.

"When we went there [to the CECC] and talked to the detainees about healthcare it just seemed pretty terrible. They don't get to see doctors in person; they only talk to them over a video link," said Paloma van Groll, a recent U of T law graduate and co-author of the report. "It seemed like if you had schizophrenia or bipolar you would get medication but if you had something like anxiety or depression they don't really medicate you."

Mandhane said the UN process is useful because the recommendations can be used to keep Canada accountable and also to force the government to respond to her findings.

"The state actually has to respond in some way to the UN as to how it's planning to implement those recommendations," she said.

They would be a useful tool should immigration detention ever be brought before the court.

"You can point to the recommendation to show the court that, for example, international bodies have found Canada's practice to be arbitrary detention or cruel treatment," she said, highlighting their usefulness in domestic litigation and in political advocacy.

The response she got from Canada at the committee meeting was, she said, not much of a response at all.

When she brought up the issue that there were no real viable alternatives to detention, Canada simply stated that Canada Border Services Agency policy is to consider alternatives to detention.

"That's a policy, that doesn't reflect practice. We were really trying to impress upon the committee that just because you have a policy doesn't mean that there are actually viable alternatives to detention, especially for people with mental health issues," Mandhane said.

Next came the issue of long-term detention. In Canada, immigration detention can be indefinite. Detainees have detention review hearings every 30 days, but in practice they have a release rate of only 15 per cent. Mandhane and her colleagues spoke to several detainees who have been in custody seven or eight years.

"Canada's response to that was simply to state that the average period of detention was 23 days," Mandhane said.

The last issue Mandhane raised was the lack of effective oversight over the CBSA.

According to Mandhane, Canada simply re-iterated that it has an agreement with the Canadian Red Cross to monitor detention sites.

The problem is that in Ontario, where 60 per cent of immigration detainees are held, provincial prisons have denied the Red Cross access to conduct their monitoring.

"Canada keeps saying they have independent monitoring but they don't because a huge percentage of detainees are held in [Ontario] prisons," said van Groll.

Colleen Lowe, manager of communications with the Canadian Red Cross, said that "negotiations are underway" between the Canadian Red Cross and the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional services to allow the Red Cross' detention monitoring program into the correctional facilities where immigration detainees are being held.


Megan Devlin is rabble’s news intern for 2015. She hails from Toronto, but she’s starting her Masters in Journalism in Vancouver. She got her start in journalism working at the Western Gazette where she was a news editor for volume 107 and online associate editor for volume 108.


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