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Abdelrahman Elmady at Columbia Park in Vancouver on Oct. 8.Taehoon Kim/The Globe and Mail

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International are launching a campaign urging Canadian provinces to cancel arrangements with the federal government that let them detain asylum seekers and refugee claimants in provincial jails.

The national campaign, called Welcome to Canada, begins on Thursday with the aim of pressing the provinces into ending the agreements they have with the Canadian Border Services Agency, or CBSA. The arrangements allow thousands of immigration detainees each year to be held in provincial jails without a time limit.

The campaign is launching after the release of a joint report in June from Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International that documented how being detained in Canadian jails and treated punitively affect people’s mental health, especially for those who came to Canada seeking an open, tolerant society. The report calls for the gradual abolishment of immigration detention, where it says people experience human-rights violations.

Asylum seekers and refugee claimants are only held if the CBSA determines detention necessary. Though individuals can be detained if they’re a potential danger to the public or officials aren’t sure of their identity, the joint report reads that over 80 per cent are detained because they’re deemed a “flight risk” – that is, there’s a concern they won’t show up for an immigration hearing or removal from the country. Many people are held for months without knowing when they’ll be released because there’s no time limit.

Asylum seekers and refugee claimants are usually held in immigration detention centres but can be placed in provincial jails if they’re deemed higher risk, and some provinces hold people in correctional facilities because they don’t have immigration detention centres.

“Canada is involved in serious human-rights abuses against people who come here seeking refuge, seeking a better life,” said Samer Muscati, associate disability rights director with Human Rights Watch. “There’s no reason for any province to be complicit in this abuse.”

Between April, 2016, and March, 2020, Canada held approximately 32,000 individuals in immigration detention, and between 16 and 28 per cent of people each year are held in provincial facilities, according to the CBSA website. The number of people in detention dropped during the pandemic, though the percentage of people held in provincial facilities jumped to around 50 per cent.

“This pandemic really has presented a unique opportunity to take a turn toward this paradigm shift [of ending provincial jail use] that is so absolutely necessary in this area,” said Hanna Gros, a researcher with Human Rights Watch and the primary author of the June report. She added that most individuals don’t need to be held in strict conditions of detention.

“For so many people, far from receiving the warm welcome for which Canada is known for, they’re met with handcuffs,” Ms. Gros said.

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Sara Maria Gomez Lopez at Central Park in Burnaby, B.C., on Oct. 11.Taehoon Kim/The Globe and Mail

Sara Maria Gomez Lopez, who’s from Mexico, said she can no longer wear jewellery on her wrists because they remind her of the handcuffs she was put in during detention. She arrived in Canada in 2012 and was detained for three months in a B.C. jail. She said her hands and feet were cuffed when she was transported to her immigration hearings.

“Once I got released, I was wondering how I’m going to trust this country that’s supposed to be friendly for asylum seekers,” Ms. Gomez Lopez said. “I cannot be before any CBSA officer because I start shaking again. My heart starts pumping faster … feeling the panic attack.”

Abdelrahman Elmady, originally from Egypt, was held for two months in correctional facilities when he arrived in Canada in 2017. Mr. Elmady requires a hearing aid, but it was taken from him when he was detained, and though he was occasionally given replacements, they only had limited battery life. He spent much of his detention without being able to properly hear, which made it difficult for him to communicate and understand what was happening.

“Before I came here, I’ve heard too many beautiful stories about Canada,” he said, explaining how people like him put their hope in Canada when they saw how the country welcomed Syrian refugees. “But it was wrong,” he said. “It’s like a slap on my face.”

Conditions vary from one facility to another, but detainees held in jails often interact with inmates. People of colour, particularly those who are Black, are more likely to be held for longer periods of time: 37 per cent of detainees who were held for more than three months in 2019 were from countries in Africa, according to the report. That number rose to 42 per cent for detainees held for more than nine months.

The Canadian Red Cross monitors detention conditions and, if necessary, makes recommendations to “improve detention conditions and to promote the rights of those held in their care,” according to a statement from the organization, adding it aims to visit detention centres it has access to up to four times a year. The organization provides annual reports to the CBSA, which can then be made public at CBSA’s discretion.

The number of visits varies depending on the location, but according to PEI’s Department of Justice and Public Safety, the Red Cross has not made a visit to either of the province’s two facilities “in the last decade.”

Rebecca Purdy, a spokesperson for the CBSA, said in a statement that the agency “is committed to limiting the use of detention to manage difficult cases where there are serious concerns,” and that it always considers alternatives to detention. She said the CBSA is also working to reduce the use of provincial facilities. “The agency is committed to ensuring the dignified and humane treatment of all persons detained pursuant to immigration legislation,” the statement read.

In September, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International sent a letter to the B.C. government asking for a meeting with ministers, and for the province to consider ending the practice of holding detainees in jails. Mr. Muscati said that similar requests to other provinces also went out this week.

The B.C. Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General’s office confirmed to The Globe and Mail that Minister Mike Farnworth “will be accepting a meeting with the organizations, and B.C. will consider reviewing the arrangement between BC Corrections and the Canadian Border Services Agency.”

Mr. Muscati called that news a “positive development,” and said the minister’s office has reached out to set up a meeting.

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