Immigration Detention: Canada’s Black Hole

For a good part of the past year I received almost weekly phone calls from Abdi.   He told me he was stateless and had spent most of his childhood in a refugee camp.  He and his family arrived in Canada with as Convention Refugees.  Twenty two years later he found himself in a maximum-security Provincial jail on an immigration hold, while the Canadian government tried to find a way to remove him to his country of birth. His birth however had never been registered, and his birth country did not recognize him as a citizen.
Abdi told me after arriving in Canada he developed some addictions and did stupid things that he was not proud of.  As a result of his activities related to his addictions, he was convicted and sentenced to an 8 month prison term. Upon completion of his prison sentence he remained in detention on an immigration hold. In spite of being stateless, when Abdi first called me, he had been on an immigration hold for more than two years as Canadian authorities attempted to remove him to his country of birth.  It was impossible to remove him to his birth country as there was no record that he had been born there.  Abdi told me he was ‘going crazy in here.’  After more than two years on an immigration hold he had lost faith in Canadian ‘justice.’  In his view the law and the courts had let him down and he had nowhere to turn to help. 

Abdi spoke of despair and anxiety due to his immigration status.  His detention seemed to be indefinite and he had no idea when or if he would ever be released. While there were monthly reviews of his detention, he often did not have a lawyer to represent him, and in spite of being stateless there were ongoing efforts to remove him from Canada.  I accepted his collect calls from the detention centre; made sure he had access to a lawyer and tried to provide some support and hope.

A new report by the International Human Rights Program from the University of Toronto, Faculty of Law, We Have No Rights, provides an alarming overview of the scope of Immigration detention in Canada which affects thousands of non-citizens every year – including those with mental health issues, torture victims, pregnant women, and children.   The report focuses on the mental health concerns of migrants who are held in provincial jails and finds that immigration detention has a catastrophic impact on mental health – making existing mental health issues worse, and creating new ones.
The report finds there are shocking gaps in the rule of law related to immigration detention and makes important recommendations including the need for an independent body/ombudsperson who should be responsible for overseeing and investigating the Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA), and to whom immigration detainees like Abdi can turn to in order to register complaints and request investigations.  The report also recommends that Canada create a rule which favours release after 90 days of detention for individuals on an immigration hold. This is an important recommendation.  While Abdi had been held for ONLY two years, the report cites a case of an immigration detainee in Canada who has been held for 8 years!  Throughout this time little has been done to seriously explore less expensive and less restrictive alternatives to detention.

The report concludes that the detention of migrants with mental health issues in provincial jails violates the human rights of some of the most vulnerable people in Canadian society.  Immigration detention is often arbitrary, and in some cases amounts to cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment which provides no effective remedy for those detained.

This report gives a voice to people like Abdi and the thousands of others detained in Canada for immigration purposes who find themselves in something approaching a legal “black hole”.  Abdi doesn’t need a report to tell him that his detention was unjust, and he can only hope that Canadian authorities will adhere to their international human rights obligations and put an end to the indefinite and arbitrary detention of non-citizens in Canada.