Canada Border Services Agency must change way it treats migrants: Editorial
Fifteen people have died while in the custody of Canada Border Services Agency since 2000 and in most cases no one knows why. The service needs to be held accountable for the thousands of migrants it detains each year
Sun., May 22, 2016
It’s happened again. A 24-year-old man died in a provincial jail last Saturday in Edmonton while in the custody of the Canada Border Services Agency. He was the 15th person to die in CBSA custody since 2000 and the third to die just this year.
But like those before him, it will be difficult to find out how or why this man died.
As usual when a migrant dies in custody, the agency refused to reveal his identity and nationality or say whether his next of kin had been notified. In fact, it sometimes doesn’t even announce that a person has died in custody until the news gets out from other sources and it is forced to confirm it.
Yes, migrants can die in custody in Canada and their death, never mind the how or why, isn’t publicly reported. For all intents and purposes, they are disappeared. That is shocking in a democracy.
Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale has been saying for months that he’s concerned. He says he is examining the CBSA’s immigration detention program “and how best to provide the agency with appropriate review mechanisms.” After the latest death, he said Ottawa “can and must do better” in taking care of detainees.
That’s an understatement. Right now the CBSA operates like a power unto its own, with no oversight body. It detains thousands of migrants every year, some of whom may have escaped from war zones or dictatorships. In 2013-14, the agency detained 10,088 migrants, almost one-fifth of them refugee claimants. They are held for an average of 20 days but can be held for years — or even indefinitely simply because the agency cannot confirm their identities.
A third are held in provincial jails, even if they pose no danger to society. They may simply be failed refugee claimants, people without documents or those who have had their resident status revoked. Still, they are kept in jails because they need medical attention, which the CBSA cannot provide at its detention centres, or because the agency’s own holding facilities are full.
This must stop. Legal experts at the University of Toronto’s International Human Rights Program say housing detainees in facilities intended for criminals violates international human rights law and constitutes “arbitrary detention and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.”
And this week 140 Ontario health care professionals sent a petition to Ontario’s Safety and Correctional Services Minister Yasir Naqvi, urging the province to stop allowing the CBSA to house migrants in provincial jails for violating federal immigration laws, especially those with mental and physical health concerns.
Action on that request would be a first step toward protecting detainees’ rights. Those who are sick could be sent to hospitals or the agency could ensure its own facilities offer health services.
There’s much more that needs to be done:
- The agency must become more transparent not only in how it deals with deaths of migrants in custody, but how and why it detains them in the first place. CBSA holding facilities would not be full to overflowing, forcing it to send migrants to jails, if the Harper government had not turned preventive detention from a last resort into a routine procedure for handling unwanted migrants.
- Fewer migrants could be held for fear they will go into hiding. Electronic monitoring for those who pose no security threat would help to solve that problem.
- No detainee should be held indefinitely. A presumption against detention beyond 90 days is the American and European norm. Indeed, the United Nations has said Canada’s practice of indefinite detention amounts to cruel and unusual punishment of migrants. But in Canada there are examples of migrants who have been detained for as long as nine and 12 years simply because the agency could not confirm their identities.
- An oversight body should be established to ensure transparency and avoid possible abuse of power.
This kind of reform is long overdue. Goodale should press ahead with his review without delay.