Canada has been accused of breaking international law by keeping hundreds of children in immigration detention centres.
Planned reforms of the immigration detention system cannot come soon enough for 46 medical and legal groups, who say the practice of incarcerating children is a stain on Canada’s reputation.
An average of 242 children per year were detained over the past four years, according to figures obtained by campaigners. They are mainly the result of failed refugee claims, waiting to be deported as their details are verified.
While Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale has committed to doing all he can to end the practice, activists want to see change immediately and not months and years down the line.
The main reason for incarceration is flight risk, as immigrants wait for hearings or for their identities to be verified.
Immigration centres in Toronto, Ontario and Laval, Quebec have been criticised as ill-equipped for housing children. One expert described them as being like ‘medium-security prisons’.
The government has also come under fire for its controversial use of provincial jails to house some immigration detainees.
They are aiming to dramatically reduce this practice, with purpose-built detention centres in British Columbia and Quebec among the plans.
Goodale announced a new National Immigration Detention Framework, under which he and the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) have been conducting consultations across Canada.
The federal government announced in August it would spend $138 million on improving Canada’s immigration detention system.
New, bigger holding centres in Laval and Vancouver will command the majority of the spending.
There have been 15 deaths in CBSA custody since 2000 and three this year, giving further fuel to calls for the system to be modernized.
The agency estimates there are up to 500 immigration detainees held at any one time.
The deal to use provincial jails to hold those deemed a security risk, a flight risk, or who have health problems holding centres are not equipped to deal with, was made under the previous Conservative government.
As well as moving away from all forms of detention as much as possible, the Liberal government also want to improve health care on offer and increase transparency by making the holding centres open to the Red Cross, United Nations, lawyers and spiritual advisers.
A Red Cross report in 2014 found holding centres were overcrowded and inadequate health care available.
One option being considered is community supervision with a contractor already being sought to run a scheme that would oversee regular reporting, run substance abuse programs, offer help finding jobs and education opportunities and assistance with finding accommodation.
A recent government tender notice read: “A Community Supervision Program would allow for the release of an individual from detention through the provision of supervision and community services that effectively mitigate risk of release, as identified in a supervision plan developed by the CBSA.”
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