University of Toronto law school researchers say Canada often breaches international human rights laws by detaining migrants with mental health issues for several years in maximum-security jails.
The study conducted by the law school’s International Human Rights Program calls the country’s immigration detention system “a legal black hole,” condemning the arbitrariness of the Immigration and Refugee Board’s decisions to release or detain individuals.
“Canada’s detention review regime creates an effective presumption against release, while judicial review of detention decisions is largely ineffectual,” says the study, which will be released on 25th June and will be presented to the United Nations Human Rights Committee in Geneva in July.
“In some cases, the end result is long-term detention that is, in practice, preventative and indefinite.”
One example of the injustice of the system is the detention of Victor Vinnetou, who has been held by Canada Border Services Agency for 11 years. Vinnetou has been suspected of being Mbuyisa Makhubu, the missing South African anti-apartheid icon, even though the Canadian authorities have failed to positively identify him.
The study claims that more than 7,300 migrants were detained by Canada Border Service Agency in 2013, of which 60% were in Ontario. While about one-third of them were kept in provincial prisons meant for criminals, the rest were kept at dedicated immigration holding centres in Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver.
The study, which consists of 129 pages, compiles information from over ten months of research and field work, including several interviews with border agency officials, doctors, lawyers, correctional staff, mental health experts, and former and current detainees. The study also includes information that was obtained from the Canadian government through access to information requests.
“Some detainees have no past criminal record, but are detained on the basis that they are a flight risk, or because their identity cannot be confirmed . . . Some spend more time in jail on account of their immigration status than the underlying criminal conviction,” says the study.
“Counsel and jail staff we spoke to noted that migrants are often held in provincial jails on the basis of pre-existing mental health issues (including suicidal ideation), medical issues or because they are deemed ‘problematic’ or uncooperative by CBSA.”
The study, authored by Hanna Gros and Paloma van Groll, comes following the recent death of two immigration detainees – a 39-year-old, who lost his life in a Peterborough hospital after being transferred from the Central East Correctional Centre in Lindsay, and Mexican detainee Lucia Vega Jimenez, who committed suicide during his detention in Vancouver.
The study highlights the severe trauma faced by the immigrant detainees who find themselves in difficult conditions, often falling prey to mental health issues. Seven immigrant detainees were interviewed in the research, and it was found that all of them had been diagnosed with mental health issues like severe anxiety or suicidal tendencies.
The research drew reference from a 2013 study by Janet Cleveland of McGill University, which claims that a third of immigration detainees show clinical post-traumatic-stress disorders after 31 days of detention on average, with two-thirds being clinically anxious and more than 75% suffering from depression.
“Once a detainee finds him or herself in provincial jail, they fall into a legal black hole where neither CBSA nor the provincial jail has clear authority over their conditions of confinement. This is especially problematic since in Ontario at least, there is no regular, independent monitoring of provincial jails,” says the study.
“Detention in a provincial jail, even for a short period, exacerbated their mental health issues, or created new ones.”
The study is also critical of the random nature of decisions taken by the Immigration and Refugee Board to detain or release immigrants, with widely varying rate of release across the country – 10% in Ontario compared to 38% in the western region, including British Columbia.
The study’s recommendation is that Ottawa should create an independent oversight body which will investigate the CBSA, while also accepting complaints from those who have been detained. The study also recommends that the Canadian government should in general avoid detention terms exceeding 90 days, and also implement alternative measures to detention.