Jailing immigration detainees in BC prisons infringes on rights, say organizations

A coalition of organizations, groups and concerned citizens are calling on the City of Vancouver to send a clear message to the Province of British Columbia to end its agreement with Canada Border Services Agency (CSBA) currently allowing for the detention of migrants and refugee claimants in provincial jails through 14 days of action.

The days of action lead up to a Vancouver City Hall motion to be introduced May 17 calling on the province to end the agreement which is currently under review by BC Minister of Public Safety Mike Farnworth and is expected to be completed by June 2.

The 14 Days of Action will include a social media call-to-action from Justice for Girls on Mother’s Day, an online teach-in hosted by Pivot Legal Society, a letter-writing campaign, and the public release of a host of open letters and submissions for the review. These submissions include ones from individuals with lived experience, such as Abdelrahman Elmady and Sara Maria Gomez Lopez, groups of concerned health care providers, lawyers and people from faith communities, the BC Civil Liberties Association, SWAN, and a joint submission from the BC Poverty Reduction Coalition, Community Legal Assistance Society, Immigration and Refugee Legal Clinic, Migrant Workers Centre BC and West Coast LEAF.

The submissions highlight a variety of concerns including that jailing people for purely immigration purposes may violate the BC Human Rights Code’s protection from discrimination based on several protected grounds, including place of origin, race, and sex. Furthermore, the CBSA’s practices in immigration detention are discriminatory against people with mental health conditions, and officers have characterized behaviours associated with psychosocial disabilities and/or mental health deterioration as non-cooperation and reason for continued detention. Immigration detainees from racialized communities, primarily detainees who are Black, are incarcerated for longer periods and are more frequently held in provincial jails. BC’s agreement with the CBSA perpetuates this disproportionate harm and systemic racism.

The campaign comes on the heels of an effort by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International to end the practice nationally. The two groups released a legal memorandum on April 4, showing that Canada’s practice of incarcerating immigration detainees in provincial jails is inconsistent with international human rights standards.

Every year, Canada incarcerates hundreds of people on immigration-related grounds in dozens of provincial jails across the country, including in maximum-security facilities. People in immigration detention are regularly handcuffed, shackled, restricted to small spaces with rigid routines, and placed under constant surveillance.

According to the CBSA’s most recent statistics, BC has the second highest number of people in immigration detention second only to Ontario. After a major decline in the number of people in immigration detention at the beginning of the pandemic, the quarterly number of immigration detainees more than doubled the year after the onset of the pandemic, from 64 to 134.

Mara Selanders, Staff Counsel (Policy), BC Civil Liberties Association, said: “Immigration detention robs immigrants and refugees of the basic rights and freedoms upon which Canada prides itself. Many people who are detained do not have access to legal support or healthcare services, and cannot contact friends or family. They are held without a timeline for their release, and restricted by handcuffs, shackles, and solitary confinement. The unfettered discretion of Canada Border Services Agency has resulted in an immigration detention regime that is cruel and inhumane. The BCCLA urges the provincial government to prioritize the health and well-being of immigrants and refugees and end its agreement with CBSA allowing immigration detainees to be housed in provincial jails.”

Julia Sande, Human Rights Law & Policy Campaigner, Amnesty International, said: “Immigration detention has devastating and long-lasting impacts on people who are detained, their loved ones, and communities. We call on BC to demonstrate its commitment to human rights by ending immigration detention in its provincial jails.”

Samer Muscati, Acting Disability Rights Director, Human Rights Watch, said: “Canada should get on the path to abolishing immigration detention, and immediately end the incarceration of immigration detainees in provincial jails. The provinces, including BC, should urgently cancel these detention contracts and stop their complicity in the abuses taking places in their jails.”