Questions are being raised about the fairness, transparency, and consistency of Canada’s approach to detaining migrants from abroad who pose a flight risk.
Does Canada’s immigration system need to lock up people, sometimes for years on end, not because they are suspected terrorists or criminals but because a federal official worries that they may not show up for some future hearing?
Last year alone thousands of migrants from abroad – as many as close to 10,000 – found themselves locked up in Canadian holding centres, and more than 145 have been detained for more than six months, a new study by the advocacy group End Immigration Detention Network has found.
By and large these aren’t violent people who pose a threat to society. As the Star’s Nicholas Keung reports, most are failed refugee claimants, people without documents and those who have had their resident status revoked.
They are held because an immigration official suspects they may go underground to avoid deportation; because their identity can’t be established; or on suspicion that they may pose a risk to the public. Most are locked up for a few weeks then deported. Some are released in the care of a guarantor. But some are held indefinitely.
A man who entered Canada in 2004 with bogus documents under the name of Victor Vinnetou is the poster boy for this issue. He has spent a decade in detention. Granted, it’s hard to sympathize with someone who refuses to disclose his true identity or nationality so that he can’t be deported. But even so, a decade in detention is a harsh price to pay for being obstructionist.
On that score Canada is clearly out of step with the U.S., Britain and much of the European Union. After three to six months they free detainees while they await removal. We have no limit.
This issue has led to hunger strikes in the Ontario prison system and boycotts of Immigration and Refugee Board detention reviews by detainees who say the system is stacked against them. Advocates want an end to “endless detention.” And they object that many are held in maximum security. They want the process overhauled.
It’s a growing human rights issue. And it affects a lot of people.
Getting a sympathetic hearing from Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s law-and-order government won’t be easy. Many Canadians are disposed to give the government the benefit of the doubt. But the study does raise legitimate questions about the fairness, transparency and consistency of federal policy.
The authors of the study accuse the Conservative government of “political interference” in reviewing these cases. Their report suggests that Canada’s practices are growing harsher. And they offer statistics that appear to back up their claims.
The study found that detention review adjudicators in the Central Region, which includes Toronto, appear to be going harder on detainees. The rate of release in central Canada last year was just 9 per cent, compared to a more generous 27 per cent in the west and 24 per cent in the east. The study also found that officials in the central region who worked in 2008, 2012 and 2013 were releasing proportionately fewer detainees, averaging 21 per cent, 11.5 per cent and 9.3 per cent respectively in those years.
Finally, the study found that individual reviewers’ decisions varied greatly. Some freed as few as one in 20. Others released as many as one in three. That variance raises questions about consistency in the application of federal policy.
All this has led to speculation that, even as Ottawa lets in more temporary foreign workers, there is concern that some may be tempted to overstay. So it is ramping up enforcement procedures.
There’s no simple formula for handling the thousands of people who run afoul of immigration laws. Everyone has their own story. But locking people up indefinitely can’t be the answer. And Canadians can’t be expected to support a review process that appears to be growing harsher, and which produces wildly varying outcomes depending on whom the adjudicator is and where the detainee is held. If nothing else the study suggests that Ottawa needs to take a hard, critical look at this process.