Border Services Agency needs independent oversight: Editorial


Border Services Agency needs independent oversight: Editorial

Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale announced a welcome package of reforms for Canada’s immigration detention system. But missing was an independent body to oversee the Canada Border Services Agency.

Tues., Aug. 16, 2016

On the face of it, there’s much to applaud in Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale’s announcement that Ottawa is setting aside $138 million “to transform the immigration detention system in Canada.”

It’s a system much in need of reforming. Under the Harper government, preventive detention went from being a last resort to a routine procedure for handling failed refugee claimants, people without documents or those who had had their status revoked. As a result, Ottawa incurred the ire of human rights organizations from Amnesty International to the United Nations.

But in his first nine months in office, Goodale clearly listened to critics. He set aside $122 million to replacing aging immigration detention centres in Laval, Que., and Surrey, B.C. Another $10.5 million will be used to improve and provide mental and medical health services for those in immigration holding centres. (Under the current system, detainees must often be transferred to provincial jails to get access to such services.)

Most promising of all is that $5 million will be spent to increase “alternatives to detention.” That could mean the use of performance bonds, cash deposits and electronic reporting systems so that migrants who are considered a flight risk don’t have to be locked up at all.

Those measures should be introduced as quickly as possible. Building new detention centres will take years, and detainees cannot wait that long for relief.

One glaring omission is any promise to create an independent body to oversee the Canada Border Services Agency, which oversees the detention of migrants in Canada behind a veil of secrecy.

For example, in the past 16 years 15 people have died while in CBSA custody, three this year alone. When that happens, the agency goes into information lockdown mode. It often refuses to reveal the names of those who died, their nationality, whether their next of kin have been notified, or the circumstances of their death. Indeed, 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.

Under those secretive measures, one could argue that migrants can actually be “disappeared” in Canada.

An independent oversight body could also ensure that the agency is answerable for the number of migrants it detains in the first place. Those numbers are strikingly high: in 2013-14, for example, it detained 10,088 migrants, almost one-fifth of who were refugee claimants. A third of them were held in provincial maximum security jails, even though they posed no danger to society, because immigration detention centres were overflowing.

After years of the Harper government ignoring the plight of Canada’s unwanted migrants, Goodale should be congratulated for the strides he has taken. But he needs to press harder on short-term solutions while new facilities are being built. And he should move to ensure that the CBSA gets badly needed oversight.