The B.C. government is reviewing its arrangement with Ottawa to detain refugee claimants or migrants in provincial jails if border authorities consider them to be flight risks.
The decision came after Solicitor-General Mike Farnworth met with immigration advocates, a statement from Mr. Farnworth’s office said.
Mr. Farnworth, who is also deputy Premier, told Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International Canada that his ministry will review the detention arrangement between B.C. Corrections and the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA), the statement said.
In a joint campaign called #WelcomeToCanada, the two groups have called on the federal government to abolish immigration detention. The border agency did not provide a response to questions from The Globe and Mail.
Detainees are held under immigration law, but they are often subject to some of Canada’s most restrictive conditions of incarceration, which include maximum-security provincial jails and in special cases, solitary confinement.
Between April, 2019, and March, 2020, almost 9,000 people were in immigration detention in Canada, including 138 infants and children, the human-rights groups said.
“These people are seeking economic opportunities … asylum seekers are fleeing their countries of origin because of fears of persecution …” said Samer Muscati, associate disability rights director at Human Rights Watch. “It’s really the full range of reasons why people always leave their homes to come here, and in some situations, what we’ve seen is children being detained.”
Under Canadian law, children may be placed under detention orders on the same grounds as adults or to avoid separating them from their parents. Children who do not accompany their parents in detention may be transferred to child welfare authorities.
A joint report by the two groups said although the numbers have declined over the years, abusive practices still take place.
“We spoke to multiple people who are in immigration detention, including those with disabilities …” Mr. Muscati said. “They are regularly handcuffed, shackled, held with little or no contact with the outside world. And they have no set release dates. They can be held for months or years.”
The report also notes that Canada does not have a legislative limit on the length of time immigration detainees can be held while awaiting their immigration hearings. However, it said, since 2016, Canada has held more than 300 immigration detainees for longer than a year.
Mr. Muscati said the longest such detention in Canada was more than 11 years, and involved a man with an apparent mental-health condition who was held in a provincial jail in Ontario.
“What we’re asking is that the provinces wash their hands of this issue and not be implicated in these abuses by allowing the federal government to use professional correctional facilities to incarcerate immigration detainees. It’s time that this practice stops,” he said.
Public Safety Canada says on its website that Canadian immigration laws allow the Canada Border Services Agency to determine who is detained based on conditions such as lack of identification, the possibility that they will not show up for their immigration hearings if released, and whether they pose a danger to the public.
The CBSA website states that individuals with mental-health issues may be detained in a provincial detention facility that provides access to specialized care.
The agency did not provide additional comment on the issue in response to questions.
Justin Mohammed, programs manager for campaigns and advocacy at Amnesty International Canada’s English section, said CBSA’s process for determining when people are sent to provincial jails is based primarily on risk.
“Unfortunately, that’s quite an amorphous concept,” he said.
However, who goes to provincial jails rather than CBSA’s three immigration holding centres is often determined based on whether the person is in a province that has one.
The holding centres, which are in Ontario, B.C. and Quebec, resemble medium security prisons and are exclusively for immigration detainees.
Mr. Mohammed said people with mental-health issues are more likely to be placed in a provincial jail than an immigration holding centre, and this is discrimination.
“You have somebody with a mental-health issue … and rather than giving that person the help and support that they need to address that mental-health issue … we send them to jails.”
Efrat Arbel, associate professor at the University of British Columbia’s Peter A. Allard School of Law, said she sees no legal basis on which to hold migrants and refugees in correctional facilities, particularly in B.C., which has a holding centre.
She said that although immigration holding centres have problems as well, there is a substantial difference between them and correctional facilities.
“When those migrants are held in correctional facilities, intermingled with criminal populations, and subjected to the same conditions … but without any of the procedural safeguards, without having a charge or a trial and the presumption of innocence, and sometimes access to counsel … the situation becomes much more volatile,” she said.
Mr. Farnsworth’s office said the outcome of the B.C. review is expected by summer.
In the meantime, the campaign will go to other provinces, and the groups are asking the public to write, call or tweet their premiers urging them to cancel the contracts.
This week it focuses on Quebec, which the two human-rights groups say has a large number of detained children.
Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.