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A new report by human rights researchers urges Canada to urgently find alternatives to locking up child migrants, saying the practice has a harmful and lasting effect on already vulnerable newcomers.

Canada has held hundreds of children — including some from Syria and other war-torn regions — in immigration detention in recent years in violation of global legal obligations, says the report by the University of Toronto's international human rights program.

Researchers released the report, "No Life for a Child," at a news conference Thursday.

The Canada Border Services Agency holds newcomers who are considered a flight risk or a danger to the public and those whose identities cannot be confirmed.

An average of 242 children were detained annually between 2010 and 2014, the report says.

But it cautions the figure is actually higher, because it excludes those not subject to a detention order but who were held because their parents were in custody.

Children are generally kept in federal immigration holding centres in Toronto and Laval, Que., facilities that are designed for long-term stays.

Those facilities resemble medium-security prisons, with little privacy or freedom of movement, inadequate access to education and poor nutrition and recreation, the report says.

"Life in immigration detention is woefully unsuited for children."

Rachel Kronick, a child psychiatrist at Jewish General Hospital in Montreal and a professor at McGill University, contributed to the research.

She said the findings are clear and well documented.

"Our research concluded that it is never in the best interests of children to be separated from their parents, nor is it ever in the best interests of child to be detained," she told the news conference. "Migrant children's right to health must be protected."

Earlier this year, two 16-year-old boys were held in solitary confinement — in one case for three weeks — at the Toronto holding centre, the report notes.

In some cases, detained children are Canadian citizens. The report cites the case of two unidentified boys, aged five and six, held along with their parents, who were in the process of appealing their rejected refugee claim.

"According to the boys' mother, during the brief period of detention, the children were frightened by the guards, appeared anxious, had difficulty sleeping and ate little," the report says.

"However the most concerning symptoms emerged after, and as a result of, detention. In particular, both boys developed difficulty separating from their parents."

The Canadian Red Cross Society has found numerous shortcomings at facilities for immigrant detainees, including overcrowding and lack of mental-health care. Many newcomers are held in provincial jails or police facilities alongside suspected gang members and violent offenders.

Last month, the Liberal government announced that the immigration holding facilities in Laval and Vancouver would be replaced as part of a $138-million overhaul intended to improve detention conditions for new arrivals to Canada.

The government will also work to expand the range of alternatives to locking up immigrants, with the aim of making detention a last resort, said Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale.

The report recognizes recent federal moves to reform the immigration detention system and consult on next steps.

But the researchers recommend that children and their family members be held only when the parents are deemed a public danger. In all other cases, such families should be released outright or given access to community-based alternatives such as electronic monitoring, regular reporting to authorities, financial bonds and use of guarantors.