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The Canada Border Services Agency holds people who are considered a flight risk or a danger to the public. Ottawa is looking at upgrading the three immigration holding centres in order to reduce the use of provincial jails.MARK BLINCH/Reuters

Two senior cabinet ministers say the federal government will change a policy that allows authorities to imprison migrants without charge for years on end, including a major reduction in the use of medium- and maximum-security provincial jails.

Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said Wednesday that Ottawa needs to "dramatically improve the rules and procedures around [migrant] detention." He made the comments one day after The Globe and Mail reported that Canada had freed Victor Vinnetou, a mysterious man who is believed to be a South African anti-apartheid hero, after more than 11 years in detention. He was thought to be the longest-serving migrant detainee in the Canadian immigration custody system.

"It will involve using less and less and less the services of provincial jails, because that is entirely inappropriate to mingle people who are having an immigration or a refugee issue with people who have been convicted of criminal offences," Mr. Goodale told reporters. "Can I say that we will stop it [the use of provincial jails] altogether? I can't honestly make that comment now. But dramatically reduce it? Yes, that is the objective."

The Canada Border Services Agency can hold migrants who are a flight risk, pose a threat to public safety or whose identities cannot be confirmed. They are held in one of Canada's three immigration holding centres in Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver, or in provincial jails. It's not clear how many migrants are currently detained by the CBSA, but a confidential Canadian Red Cross inspection report obtained by The Globe says 10,088 migrants were detained in 138 facilities across Canada in 2013-14.

According to Mr. Goodale, Ottawa is looking at upgrading the three immigration holding centres in order to reduce the use of provincial jails. "There's a very restricted infrastructure available for these detention centres … and quite frankly they are not very good facilities," he said.

Mr. Vinnetou's case also highlights the need for alternatives to detention, he added. "There should have been alternatives to detention that should have been available to make sure that his situation was properly dealt with, but not in a detention facility for that length of time."

One alternative the government has been using is the Toronto Bail Program, the only immigration supervision program of its kind. Mr. Vinnetou was released under the program earlier this year.

Immigration Minister John McCallum agreed that migrants should not be held for as long as Mr. Vinnetou was. "If someone is detained for that period of time, we don't think that is appropriate, so we would be looking into finding out what we can do about that to prevent that kind of thing from happening again and to have a better policy framework," he said after a cabinet meeting.

Like many migrant detainees, Mr. Vinnetou is believed to have a complicated story. New evidence supports earlier theories that he might be the man carrying a fatally wounded boy in an iconic photo of the Soweto Uprising of South Africa in 1976. Three years ago, a Canadian immigration investigator noticed that Mr. Vinnetou looked like Mbuyisa Makhubu, the man in the photo. Mr. Makhubu fled South Africa several weeks after the photo was taken. He sent a letter to his family in 1978, when he was in Nigeria, but was never heard from again.

Mr. Vinnetou came to Canada in 1988 on a false Zambian passport, according to a review by the Immigration and Refugee Board this year. He was convicted of assault in 1994 and ordered deported, but he disappeared. He was detained in 2004, while working as a garbage collector in Toronto under a false name. He was in jail until January of this year, as his home country was unknown and he refused to help establish his identity. Lawyers have suggested he might suffer from mental-health issues, but nothing has been officially diagnosed.

Mr. Vinnetou was quietly released in January on the understanding he would get South African documents so he could return home. However, he remains in Toronto, with no indication that South Africa wants him back.

His case highlights concerns about the imprisonment of migrants for immigration violations, some of whom are detained in maximum-security jails for years without charge. Human-rights groups have criticized Canada's practices, especially in light of several migrant detainee deaths in CBSA custody. Those critics have also expressed concern about the detention of migrant children – something Mr. Goodale said he hopes to address.

The minister said Ottawa's objective is to have no migrant minors in detention. The Liberal government came under fire in February over the detention of a 16-year-old Syrian boy, who was held under Canada's immigration laws at the Toronto Immigration Holding Centre for three weeks. He was scheduled to be deported on Feb. 25, but the government stepped in at the last moment, cancelled the deportation order and granted him first-stage approval for permanent residence on humanitarian and compassionate grounds.

In open letters last month, more than 230 doctors, nurses, social workers, lawyers and academics called on the Ontario government to stop imprisoning migrants for immigration violations. Samer Muscati, one of the signatories and director of the International Human Rights Program at the University of Toronto, said the government's pledge to make changes to the detention policy is long overdue.

"This is all good news and we're just hoping that we can make a move on this quickly because everyday that children and migrants with mental-health issues are imprisoned, the worse their situation becomes. It impacts their mental health the longer that they're there for," he said.

With a report from Geoffrey York

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