A year after Canadians learned of the death of Lucía Vega Jiménez in immigration detention, human rights organizations are concerned that there is still no oversight mechanism for the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA). Many of the central recommendations of the jury at the inquest have yet to be implemented. According to the groups, there are also worrying signs that the recommendations are being used to justify worsening conditions for detainees.
Lucía Vega Jiménez, a Mexican woman held in custody by the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) at the Vancouver International Airport, died on December 24, 2013. Information about this tragic death was only made public a month after her death, following news reports. An inquest was held in September 2014.
The three organizations regret that CBSA’s response to date to the inquest has been focused on measures to physically prevent suicide, while the recommendations to improve conditions for detainees and to close the detention centre at Vancouver International Airport have not been addressed. They pointed out that no apparent action been taken on the most important recommendation in the view of the three organizations – the creation of an independent accountability mechanism for CBSA.
The death of Vega Jiménez, and the coroner’s inquest that followed it, once again highlighted the lack of any oversight over the actions of CBSA. While CBSA has sweeping police powers, including the power to arrest and detain people, it is unlike most other police forces in Canada because there is no independent oversight body to review its actions and to ensure respect for the human rights of refugees, migrants, and Canadians who deal with the agency. Municipal and provincial police across Canada, as well as the RCMP, have various forms of complaint agencies and independent investigation agencies to supervise their conduct.
LOBAT Sadrehashemi, executive member of the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers, stated: “The inquest highlighted that CBSA is in an accountability crisis, but Ottawa seems to be ignoring the key recommendations of the coroner’s jury to improve the agency. Months after the jury recommended, loudly and clearly, that CBSA needs to have an oversight body, there has been no apparent action. This is unacceptable. CBSA is a police force dealing with some of the most vulnerable in our society. When something goes wrong, there continues to be no independent body to investigate.”
The Canadian Council for Refugees has learned that the CBSA is introducing new requirements for common washrooms for detainees, in response to the inquest recommendations. These new requirements will be implemented first in the Toronto Immigration Holding Centre. The CCR is concerned about aspects of the plan.
“The response to the tragic death of Lucía Vega Jiménez should not be to make conditions worse for detainees,” said Loly Rico, Canadian Council for Refugees (CCR) President. “We are deeply troubled that CBSA is planning to reduce detainees’ privacy by introducing common washrooms. Suicide prevention measures should be guided by respect for human dignity and concern for the individual’s mental health, not measures focused solely on physical prevention of suicide.” The CCR was a participant in the coroner’s inquest.
The CCR has published its comments on the recommendations of the inquest jury at: http://ccrweb.ca/en/position-vega-jimenez-recommendations
In B.C., there has been no plan announced to follow through on the recommendation to close the airport detention facility.
Josh Paterson, Executive Director of the BCCLA – which participated in the coroner’s inquest – added: “CBSA has agreed to implement some merely minimal safeguards at the Vancouver airport holding centre, such as actually having CBSA staff on site weekdays instead of just private security guards. These measures and they are not enough to comply with the coroner’s jury recommendations. The inquest evidence made clear that the Vancouver Airport Immigration Holding Centre has been plagued with problems and fails to meet basic international human rights standards. The jury recommended that the airport centre be shut down and the elimination of the use of private security guards in detainee care. Instead of doubling down on a broken system, it’s time for CBSA and the federal government to shut the airport holding centre down.”
On the topic of oversight, Paterson asked: “We know at least nine people have died in CBSA custody since 2000. How many people need to die before the government ensures that CBSA has independent oversight?”
All three organizations agreed that any replacement detention centre must be designed to provide a healthier environment for people placed in immigration detention, with a minimum of prison-like features. In addition, the groups stated that even when detention conditions are improved, people should only be detained as an extreme last resort after every alternative to detention has been explored. Ms. Rico added: “Refugees and migrants must not be treated like criminals. There needs to be less detention, and when people are detained, it must be for as short a period of time as possible.”