Efrat Arbel and Ketty Nivyabandi: Will British Columbia address systemic racism in immigration detention?

Opinion: British Columbia recently agreed to review its agreement with CBSA that authorizes locking up immigration detainees in B.C. jails

Published in: Vancouver Sun

Some of the most devastating human rights violations happen to those who are out of sight and out of mind. Canada’s prided reputation as a multicultural haven has long hidden some of the country’s most serious abuses against those who come here seeking protection or a better life. Over the past decade, Canada has incarcerated tens of thousands of immigration detainees, including children and refugee claimants, for non-criminal reasons. This structural violence disproportionately hurts communities of colour.

Now, B.C. has the chance to stop the incarceration of immigration detainees in the province’s jails — a move that will put a dent in the racist and punitive foundation of the immigration detention system.

The Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) has the power to decide who is detained, for what reason, and under what conditions — whether in an immigration detention facility or a provincial jail. Although immigration detainees are held exclusively under immigration law, they regularly endure criminal law measures when jailed, including handcuffs, shackles, lockdowns, constant surveillance, and even solitary confinement. Because there are no legal time limits on immigration detention, detainees may languish in jail for months or years. The longest instance of detention lasted 11 years and involved a Black man with apparent mental health conditions.

The racism that underpins the immigration detention regime is structural — it is embedded in the system’s very fabric and manifests at every level of its operation. In a scathing recent report, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International called on authorities to acknowledge and address systemic racism within CBSA and the immigration detention system. The report raises serious concerns about the fact that immigration detainees from communities of colour, and in particular Black men, are confined in more restrictive conditions, including maximum-security provincial jails, and for more prolonged periods of time. According to CBSA data, in 2019 most immigration detainees held for 90 days or longer were from countries in Africa or the Caribbean. And the longer people were detained, the more likely they were to be incarcerated in provincial jails rather than dedicated immigration detention facilities.

The horrific practice of jailing immigration detainees in provincial facilities seems to be getting worse. From April 2017 until the onset of the pandemic, CBSA jailed about 5,400 immigration detainees across the country. In the year after the onset of the pandemic, despite releasing immigration detainees at unprecedented rates for public health reasons, CBSA has relied more heavily on provincial jails for those who remained behind bars. The portion of immigration detainees held in provincial jails and the average length of detention both doubled as compared to previous years.

But there is reason for hope. B.C. recently agreed to review its agreement with CBSA that authorizes locking up immigration detainees in B.C. jails. This is a laudable move, and a much-needed development. But the province has yet to release any details about this review — its terms, scope, or focus. Crucially, the province has not released any details about whether, and the method by which, the review will inquire into structural racism in the composition and administration of these arrangements, or the disproportionate impact these arrangements have on communities of colour.

The violations taking place in immigration detention are not abstract. They dehumanize, traumatize, and devastate. One former detainee from a country in Africa who was quoted in the report stated, “I didn’t feel like a human in there; I felt like a dog. The guards would just open the latch to feed me.” Another man from Africa described the powerlessness he felt in detention: “We didn’t feel like we had any hope. … A lot of people were ready to die. … I gave myself a time limit: that if I’m not released by a certain date, I’m going to find a way (to commit suicide).”

B.C. stands at a crossroads. It can continue business as usual. Or it can end its complicity in CBSA’s systemic racism by cancelling its immigration detention contract with the agency that has facilitated discrimination and the serious human rights violations perpetrated within the immigration detention system.

Efrat Arbel is an associate professor at University of B.C.’s Peter A. Allard School of Law; Ketty Nivyabandi is secretary-general of Amnesty International Canada. 

Letters to the editor should be sent to sunletters@vancouversun.com. The editorial pages editor is Hardip Johal, who can be reached at hjohal@postmedia.com.