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The Canada Border Services Agency holds people who are considered a flight risk or a danger to the public, and those whose identities cannot be confirmed.Darren Calabrese/The Canadian Press

More than 200 Canadian children have been held in immigration detention in recent years, according to a new report from the University of Toronto's International Human Rights Program.

Between 2011 and 2015, 241 Canadian children were held at the Toronto Immigration Holding Centre alone, according to the report. Normally Canadian citizens cannot be subject to detention under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act. These children became de facto detainees because they were in the care of a parent who was detained and is a foreign national or permanent resident. The children cannot, however, have their own detention review hearings. As a result they become "legally invisible," according to the report.

"It's a clear violation of international law for these kids not to have their best interests taken into account as a primary consideration," said Hanna Gros, the report's author and a senior fellow at the University of Toronto. "It's quite shocking that Canadian citizens are treated this way."

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The IHRP report, titled Invisible Citizens, was a follow-up to work released last year on detainees of all nationalities, which found that on average 242 children were held in immigration detention from 2010 to 2014. But that report didn't include figures on those held who were actually Canadian.

At least 48 Canadian children on average were held in detention in Toronto alone from 2011 to 2015. There are other detention facilities in Canada, notably in Vancouver (a short-term facility) and Laval, Quebec, but they did not report detailed numbers.

The vast majority – 85 per cent – were under six years of age, and nearly two-thirds were two years or under, the report says. Lengthy stays in detention were not uncommon, as more than 35 per cent spent between a week and a month in detention, and more than 31 per cent spent more than a month locked up.

Several mothers who were detained with their Canadian children gave interviews to the researchers. They described the impact that detention had on their kids, ranging from changes in appetite and sleep to mental distress. Some described the mutual anguish of being separated when they were detained and a child was left with caregivers on the outside.

"Obviously detention has a huge impact on their mental well-being," Ms. Gros said. "No child should experience these traumatic things."

Over the last year, the Canada Border Services Agency has made a number of changes to find alternatives to detention. As a result the number of detainees has declined. Data for April to December, 2016, show that just 12 Canadian children were detained in Toronto, and for an average of only 4.5 days.

The IHRP is calling on the CBSA and the Immigration and Refugee Board to do more to avoid detaining mothers and children, and to avoid separating families. The report says that in cases where unconditional release is not appropriate, families should be monitored with community-based programs.

Until recently, the interests of a child were not supposed to factor into a parent's detention hearing, the report states. But a 2016 case set a precedent for allowing adjudicators to take those concerns into account.

"The best interests of the child should be a primary consideration," Ms. Gros said. "Canada has a real opportunity to become a world leader when it comes to policing borders in a humane way."