(Ottawa) – Provincial governments should sever their contracts to hold immigration detainees in provincial jails, where many experience abusive conditions, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International said today in opening a joint national campaign, #WelcomeToCanada. While Canadian authorities have released significant numbers of people from immigration detention since the onset of Covid-19 in March 2020, the proportion of those in provincial jails rather than immigration holding centers more than doubled in the six months following the onset of the pandemic.
Provincial jails in Canada are designed to hold people awaiting criminal court proceedings or serving criminal sentences of up to two years. Immigration detainees held in these jails – many of which are maximum-security facilities – are not only confined in more restrictive settings than those held in immigration holding centers, but they are also more likely to be detained for longer periods of time.
“By allowing the federal government to transfer immigration detainees to provincial jails, where they may remain with no end in sight, provincial authorities are implicated in Ottawa’s human rights abuses,” said Samer Muscati, associate disability rights director at Human Rights Watch. “The provincial governments have a real opportunity to show leadership by walking away from these contracts that allow serious violations to happen in their own backyards.”
According to government statistics, in the three-year period between April 2017 and March 2020, about a fifth of immigration detainees were held in 78 provincial jails across Canada. In the six months following the onset of the pandemic, between April and September 2020, 50 percent of immigration detainees were held in provincial jails. The average length of detention more than doubled, to 29 days compared with the same period the previous year, and at least 85 people were held for 100 days or longer.
“I was arrested without charge and my belongings were taken, including the batteries for my hearing aid,” Abdelrahman Elmady, an Egyptian man with a hearing disability said in one of the campaign videos released on October 14, 2021. He described his detention in three provincial jails in British Columbia after fleeing to Canada to seek asylum. “My whole life I have relied on hearing aids, but suddenly I was in prison, confused, scared, and unable to hear anything. Nobody told me how long I would be detained.”
In their recent report, “‘I Didn’t Feel Like a Human in There’: Immigration Detention in Canada and Its Impact on Mental Health,” Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International documented the serious human rights violations that people face in immigration detention in Canada. Immigration detainees include people who are fleeing persecution, seeking a better life, and some who have lived in Canada since childhood.
Immigration detainees are not held on criminal charges or convictions, but many experience some of the country’s most restrictive confinement conditions, including maximum-security provincial jails and solitary confinement. Immigration detainees are handcuffed, shackled, and held with little to no contact with the outside world. In provincial jails, many are confined in dangerous environments where they may be subjected to violence.
Immigration detainees from communities of color, particularly detainees who are Black, appear to be detained for longer periods and often in provincial jails rather than immigration holding centers. People with psychosocial disabilities (or mental health conditions) experience discrimination throughout the detention process. Immigration detention has especially harmful effects on communities of color, refugee claimants, children, and families.
Through access to information requests, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International obtained copies of the contracts between the federal government and six provinces (British Columbia, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Ontario, Quebec, and Saskatchewan), which allow authorities to hold immigration detainees in provincial jails, including maximum security facilities. The Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) confirmed to researchers that an additional contract is in place with the province of Alberta, but it has not been released.
According to the contracts reviewed by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, each province can terminate the agreement without penalty or explanation with one year’s notice. In the three remaining provinces (Manitoba, Newfoundland, and Prince Edward Island), CBSA representatives said the agency has “informal arrangements” to hold immigration detainees in provincial jails.
In its 2020-21 Departmental Plan, the CBSA indicated that it has “limited control over detention conditions” in provincial jails across the country, which “poses challenges in ensuring a common standard of care.”
Canada’s practice of incarcerating immigration detainees in provincial jails is a violation of international human rights law. Incarceration in these facilities is inherently punitive in nature and not suited nor permitted under international standards for use in immigration detention.
Canadian authorities at the federal and provincial levels should take concrete measures toward abolishing immigration detention, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International said. The groups have written to all provinces urging premiers and corrections ministries to stop using provincial jails and other incarceration facilities for immigration detention, and to cancel all contracts and informal arrangements between the federal and provincial governments that allow authorities to transfer immigration detainees to these facilities.
Through their #WelcomeToCanada campaign, which will go coast to coast starting with British Columbia, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International are asking the general public to support their advocacy efforts by writing, calling, or tweeting their premiers urging them to cancel the contracts that allow immigration detainees to languish in provincial jails.
“By shining a spotlight on the devastating harm caused by immigration detention in provincial jails, we hope that people across Canada will join us in urging provincial leaders to end this shameful practice,” said Justin Mohammed, programs manager at Amnesty International Canada. “Canada should become the refugee-welcoming and multicultural country it holds itself out to be, and treat people seeking safety or a better life with the dignity and respect they deserve.”