Skip to main content

Thousands of people, including those fleeing persecution and seeking protection in Canada, face abuse and discrimination in immigration detention, according to a new report from Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.

The report, released Thursday, documents how people in immigration detention have little to no contact with those on the outside – sometimes for months or years. It says many detainees are kept in provincial jails, are often subjected to solitary confinement and that people who have psychosocial disabilities face discrimination. While detainees are held for non-criminal purposes, the report said, they endure some of the most restrictive confinement conditions in the country.

Samer Muscati, associate disability rights director at Human Rights Watch, said the findings are in “stark contrast” to the image Canada projects, pointing to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau welcoming Syrian refugees to the country at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport in 2015.

“There’s this awful underbelly ... you see how other newcomers are being treated that’s completely inconsistent with the values of this government and of Canada,” he said in an interview.

“When you interview people and hear their stories about how they escaped terrible circumstances to end up detained, with no end in sight, and really no recourse, it’s shocking,” said Mr. Muscati, a co-author of the report.

The report makes a number of recommendations to the federal government, including abolishing immigration detention and establishing an independent oversight body of the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) where detainees could file complaints. It calls for an end to the use of provincial jails for immigration detention.

Judith Gadbois-St-Cyr, a spokesperson for the CBSA, said the agency will review the report’s findings and recommendations. She said the CBSA is committed to “ensuring the dignified and humane treatment of all persons detained pursuant to immigration legislation.”

Craig MacBride, a spokesperson for Public Safety Minister Bill Blair, said immigration detention is a measure of last resort and used when there are serious concerns about a danger to the public, a flight risk or a person’s identity.

Mr. MacBride said the government has made significant progress implementing elements of its National Immigration Detention Framework, including introducing a ministerial directive to stop the detention or housing of minors as much as possible, ensuring alternatives to detention are considered first, and reducing reliance on provincial facilities.

He said detainees have access to phones, legal counsel, support from refugee organizations, dedicated space for religious worship and space for personal visits.

The report says that Canada does not have a legal limit on the length of immigration detention, meaning detainees “are at risk of being detained indefinitely.”

Former detainees, whose identities were kept confidential, shared with researchers how agonizing it was not knowing when they would be released. One individual, a man in his 30s who left Africa as a child and spent several years in Canada after a failed refugee claim, told researchers that without something to look forward to, “a lot of people were ready to die.” He said if he was not released by a certain date, he would find a way to end his life.

Justin Mohammed, a human-rights law and policy campaigner with Amnesty International Canada and a co-author of the report, said the harms inflicted by the immigration process, particularly the absence of a release date, is one of the most shocking findings.

“In some cases, we have instances where people have spent years in detention not knowing when they will finally be released,” he said.

Mr. Mohammed said another “shameful” aspect of Canada’s system is that people with psychosocial disabilities may not be allowed to make their own decisions about legal matters. Instead, they have legally appointed representatives making decisions on their behalf.

“In Canada, unfortunately, the role of the designated representative is such that they can actually just make decisions on that person’s behalf. This is not in line with international human-rights principles,” he said, adding that the report recommended ending this practice.

Mr. Muscati said when they met with the CBSA, the agency indicated that people with mental-health conditions can be detained in provincial jails in order to manage them, or to facilitate access to specialized care. Mr. Muscati called the explanation “perverse,” saying they are not facing criminal charges and that mental-health treatment in provincial jails is “woefully inadequate.”

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.