Over the past few weeks, images of refugees being warmly greeted by RCMP officers as they leave the U.S. and enter Canada have appeared in traditional and social media. However, Canada, a country that prides itself on its deep commitment to diversity and inclusion, may offer an uncertain future for many of these migrants.
What most Canadians don’t realize is that Canada routinely detains migrants in medium-security immigration holding centres (IHCs) or maximum security provincial jails if they arrive without proper paperwork, their identity is unknown, or they are deemed a danger to the public.
While recent migrants crossing in Quebec are taken to a makeshift centre before initiating a refugee claim, a report from the University of Toronto’s International Human Rights Program (IHRP) found that the Canadian government detained more than 7,000 migrants in 2013 alone.
Worse, Canada is one of the few OECD countries that allows for indefinite detention, which means some migrants are held for months, even years, without a criminal charge or trial. This regressive policy has been denounced by the United Nations, which supports a “presumptive period,” after which migrants must be released or deported if they cannot be proven to be a public safety risk.
While migrant detention in Canada has been criticized as a breach of human rights, health care professionals say it’s also creating dire mental and physical health issues amongst an already vulnerable population.
Since 2000, 15 detainees have died under Canadian Border Services Agency custody, including three people last year alone and eight who died in Ontario provincial prisons.
On a recent visit to one of Canada’s three federally mandated IHCs near Toronto Pearson International Airport, we met a former detainee who told us he knows how a migrant can feel when there is no end in sight, and that the only hope detainees have is reassurance they haven’t been forgotten. We thought about his words as we, along with members of the No One Is Illegal, End Immigration Detention Network and 150 others, surrounded the IHC, linking our arms and protested loudly to “End Detention.”
We were forced to yell even louder when we were informed by guards that detainees were moved to the basement so they could not see or hear us.
Health Impacts of Detention
Detention is bad for health in many ways. Restricted access to healthcare, social exclusion, and stress are known to affect physical health. The impact of these factors is worsened when they are experienced by a population characterized by high rates of trauma, forced migration, and vulnerability.
Furthermore, sub-standard and unsanitary living conditions of holding centres can lead to higher rates of infectious disease, nutritional deficiencies, and respiratory issues due to overcrowding, inadequate ventilation and poor hygiene.
Some migrants with pressing health needs are transferred to provincial jails rather than hospitals, and those who remain in holding centres have limited interaction with the already short supply of nurses and doctors.
Yet, arguably the most notable health consequence of migrant detention is its impact on mental health. Migrants and refugees experiencing detention often have higher rates of PTSD, depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation.
Even more concerning, the experience of facing indefinite detention greatly impacts psychological well-being, which can persist throughout a lifetime. One study found that mental health issues can continue in refugees long after being released from detention centres, and are directly correlated with the amount of time detained.
Children are also disproportionately impacted. When detention occurs during critical child development periods, it can have substantial long-term effects on mental and physical functioning.
The IHRP’s “No Life for a Child” report found that in 2014, 232 children had spent time in one of the IHCs, averaging 29 days in detention. Some children, however, experience much longer periods of detention. One such example is of Alpha Ochigbo, who was born to a detainee. Alpha was two-and-a-half years old before he ever saw the outside of a detention centre.
The IHRP’s 2015 “We Have No Rights” report stated detained children often experience severe depression, self-harm, developmental delays, and attachment issues, which continue into adulthood. To avoid detention, some children are separated from their parents and placed with other family members or with a child protection agency. However advocates have stressed that detaining parents without their children should not be viewed as a suitable alternative since family separation has also been shown to have poor mental health consequences for children and parents.
Transferring ill migrants to provincial jails is not the solution, as healthcare in provincial jails has been found to be inadequate as well. Detainees in provincial jails who do not exhibit “disruptive behaviour” often have their mental illness go unnoticed and therefore untreated. Furthermore, the practice of transferring migrants to provincial jails frames them as criminals and is stigmatizing.
It is wholly inappropriate to place migrants, many of whom have no charges and are asylum seekers fleeing violence, in prisons alongside convicted criminals. This worsens the mental health of migrants and is damaging to the overall well-being of this already vulnerable group.
Plans for reform not enough
What we need is action to ensure that the health and human rights of migrants are recognized and upheld. This means adopting the presumptive period recommended by the UN, allocating access to health services, and ending the practice of mixing migrants with criminal populations.
A plan to reform Canada’s immigration detention system announced in August 2016 by Minister of Public Safety Ralph Goodale will see the Liberal government investing $138 million to rebuild IHCs and “enhance alternatives” to detention.
Yet this investment does not cover IHCs in Ontario, where roughly 60 percent of all detentions occur. The reform proposal has been criticized for not addressing the root cause of migrant detention, and in turn increases the capacity to criminalize more migrants.
Progress on the first phase of this reform initiative – stakeholder roundtables on “creating a better, fairer immigration detention system” – is unclear, as is whether health care providers will be consulted.
In light of U.S. President Donald Trump’s egregious travel restrictions, newly re-introduced this week and targeting six primarily Muslim countries, it is worth reflecting on Canada’s role as a moral leader. This is an opportunity to exemplify leadership by reversing immigration policies that violate health and human rights.
Canada’s legislation and policies are failing to evolve as they ought to in reaction to changes in the U.S. This already speaks volumes. Will Canada continue to criminalize migration and frame asylum seekers as illegals and aliens, or will we finally condemn this shameful prison system that exists at home?