Skip to main content

Members of the Canadian Border Services Agency gather at the Canadian border crossing in Surrey, B.C., on Oct. 16, 2012.JONATHAN HAYWARD/The Canadian Press

The Canadian government is looking at whether to expand the use of satellite technology to monitor asylum seekers or potential immigrants who would otherwise be detained, and is upgrading the equipment that would allow it to do so.

Ottawa served notice this week that it plans to sign a contract with the U.K. firm Buddi Ltd., used by police forces there to track criminals through electronic bracelet devices that the British media have dubbed "Chav Nav" tags. The technology provides real-time tracking using the same space-based Global Positioning System that drivers rely upon for in-car navigation.

Right now the Canadian Border Services Agency says it is monitoring just four people via electronic bracelets.

But it said it's examining a broader use of the technology.

"The CBSA is currently studying other alternatives to detention, including the potential for making greater use of electronic monitoring as a viable, cost-effective alternative to detention," agency spokeswoman Amitha Carnadin said.

"Officers always consider the impact that releasing someone into the community would have on the safety of Canadians."

The agency has about 400 to 500 people in detention on any given day, according to testimony before MPs. It houses a certain number in three immigration holding centres administered by the CBSA and relies on the provinces to house detainees considered "high risk" as well as low-risk individuals in areas where the agency has no facilities.

There are three reasons why new arrivals to Canada might be detained under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act: Ottawa considers that they represent a danger to the country; they represent a flight risk; or their identity hasn't been established.

Last fall CBSA officials told the public safety committee that there are about 44,000 individuals with outstanding arrest warrants who came to Canada but have skipped out of the immigration process or refused to show up for their ordered removal from Canada. About 80 per cent of these are failed refugee claimants.

The deal to buy Buddi devices, which have previously been used in the U.K. to track elderly people with dementia and psychiatric patients, will initially cost about $88,000 and provide a minimum of six units.

But it's open ended. "Monitoring services must be provided for any number of individuals at any given time throughout the period of the contract," the federal government notice says.

The Conservative-dominated Commons public safety committee has called on the government to consider using electronic monitoring to reduce the number of inadmissible arrivals who go underground in Canada rather than comply with an order to leave.

Public Safety Minister Vic Toews said just a few months ago that the CBSA will look to the United States and the U.K. which have implemented broader immigration-monitoring programs. If the review proves favourable, he said, the agency will consider a pilot project to test the effectiveness of an expanded electronic surveillance program.

A 2010 CBSA evaluation of detention practices estimated it cost about $204,000, including salaries, to electronically monitor one individual but said this price drops substantially for each additional subject because the upfront costs are spread over a greater number of people. It said the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and Canada's Immigration and Refugee Board are "increasingly interested" in such monitoring as an alternative to the long-term detention of people.