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The Canada Border Services Agency holds people who are considered a flight risk or a danger to the public. (MARK BLINCH/REUTERS)
The Canada Border Services Agency holds people who are considered a flight risk or a danger to the public. (MARK BLINCH/REUTERS)

Ottawa mulls greater scrutiny of border agency after detainee deaths Add to ...

The government is considering an oversight body for the Canada Border Services Agency following the deaths of two immigrant detainees in CBSA custody last week.

Rights and refugee groups have long called for independent oversight of the government agency and the creation of a civilian-led body to investigate deaths in custody. After the two recent deaths, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale’s office said the issue will be examined as part of the government’s upcoming public consultations on Canada’s national security framework.

“The government is examining how best to provide the Canada Border Services Agency with appropriate review mechanism,” said Mr. Goodale’s press secretary, Scott Bardsley.

Mr. Goodale has said that he is open to considering an oversight body for the CBSA.

Josh Paterson, executive director of the BC Civil Liberties Association, said the organization is “encouraged” that the government will consider improved scrutiny of the CBSA.

“Any such mechanism has to be completely independent of CBSA,” said Mr. Paterson in a statement Tuesday. “At a minimum, it must be able to receive and deal with public complaints and complaints from third parties, initiate its own reviews and investigations of CBSA conduct even when there is no complaint, and include independent civilian investigation of critical incidents of harm or death involving CBSA officers.”

The CBSA can hold people who are a flight risk, pose a threat to public safety or whose identities cannot be confirmed. According to the End Immigration Detention Network, a migrant advocacy group, 14 immigration detainees have died in the CBSA’s care since 2000, including the two deaths last week.

“If immigration enforcement in the Ontario provincial prisons can’t keep people alive in their custody, they have no business jailing them,” said Syed Hussan, a spokesman for the group.

The CBSA confirmed that two detainees died on March 7 and 13, but refused to disclose information about the individuals for privacy reasons. It said an investigation is under way and that the CBSA will “co-operate fully.”

Halton Regional Police confirmed Tuesday that 39-year-old Francisco Javier Romero Astorga was found dead by staff at the Maplehurst Correctional Complex on Sunday at 7:30 a.m. Police said he was not alone in the cell when he was found. While police could not disclose the cause of death, they said it was not suspicious. According to the End Immigration Detention Network, Mr. Astorga was from Chile. The Chilean embassy in Ottawa referred calls regarding Mr. Astorga’s death to its consulate in Toronto, which did not return calls requesting for comment.

Mr. Astorga’s death came less than a week after Melkioro Gahungu, a 64-year-old Burundian refugee, died in the Toronto East Detention Centre on March 7. Howard Crosner, honorary consul for Burundi in Ontario, said he received a call from the CBSA notifying him that Mr. Gahungu had died of suicide while awaiting deportation to Burundi.

Mr. Crosner said the Burundian government has concerns about the treatment of Mr. Gahungu in CBSA custody.

Mr. Gahungu was serving a sentence of four years and nine months for manslaughter for the 2009 stabbing death of his wife in Canada.

Mr. Gahungu was convicted of manslaughter for the 2009 stabbing death of his wife in Windsor, Ont., and sentenced to four years and nine months. Mr. Crosner said he had served more than four years of his sentence and was detained on an immigration hold.

Alex Neve, executive director of Amnesty International Canada, said something has to be done about the “glaring oversight gap when it comes to immigration detention in Canada.”

Under the current system, there is no oversight body for the CBSA and complaints must be filed with the agency, raising questions about accountability.

“As with any other police force, there are mistakes, there are concerns, there are human-rights violations that need to be investigated to ensure that the highest standards are kept,” said Mitch Goldberg, president of the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers. “It’s not to say that necessarily CBSA was at fault, but … the public absolutely needs to know to ensure that there are not tragic mistakes being made.”

Last year, the Senate national security committee called on the government to establish an oversight body and an “independent, civilian review and complaints body” for the CBSA.

A 2015 United Nations report also raised concern about Canada’s immigration detention system and its lack of medical support for detainees with mental illness. Another study by the University of Toronto’s International Human Rights Program last year found that nearly one-third of all migrants detained across Canada are placed in facilities intended for the criminal population, constituting a violation of international human-rights law.

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