Canada Border Services Agency’s treatment of migrants with mental health issues violates rights: U of T report

Detainees say they were treated like “garbage,” “less than human”
The International Human Rights Program’s latest report says that Canada Border Services Agency’s treatment of non-citizens with mental health issues is in breach of Canada’s international human rights obligations as it is discriminatory, constitutes indefinite and arbitrary detention, is cruel and inhuman, and violates the right to health.
“Our report reveals shocking gaps in the rule of law,” said Renu Mandhane, executive director of the International Human Rights Program (IHRP). “CBSA transfers migrants who are not serving a criminal sentence to provincial jails in the absence of adequate laws, regulations, or policies.”
“Counsel are not given notice and detainees do not have an opportunity to challenge confinement in maximum security conditions despite the catastrophic impact imprisonment has on their mental health.”
“We have no rights”: Arbitrary Imprisonment and Cruel Treatment of Migrants with Mental Health Issues in Canada finds the CBSA routinely detains migrants with mental health issues in maximum-security jails – sometimes for years – despite their vulnerable and non-criminal status. (Read coverage of the report in Macleans, The Globe & Mail)
“We have no rights,” which was released to coincide with World Refugee Day on June 20, profiles detainees who have been imprisoned between two months and eight years. IHRP researchers travelled to three Ontario jails to interview detainees and collect these “voices from the inside.”
The report shows that detainees overwhelmingly communicated despair and anxiety over their immigration status, their seemingly indefinite detention, their lack of legal rights, their conditions of confinement, and the lack of adequate mental health treatment to allow them to get better.
Uday [subject's name changed for protection] was one of of the non-citzens on the front lines of this treatment. He has schizophrenia and no criminal record, yet was detained for nearly three years in two maximum security Ontario jails because CBSA was unable to confirm his identity or country of origin and believed he was a flight risk.
Detention had a significant negative and long-term impact on his mental health. He has since been released and recognized as de facto stateless. In recounting his treatment in jail, Uday says, “we had no rights at all…they treat[ed] us like garbage.”
Last year, there were more than 7,000 migrants detained in Canada. “We have no rights” includes statistics that chart the rising cost of immigration detention over the past nine years (more than $50 million last year), and ever-increasing “detention days.”
In an exclusive interview, Reg Williams, director of CBSA immigration enforcement in Toronto from 2004 until his retirement in 2012, provides important insights into CBSA’s institutional culture, stressing “the culture is heading in one direction only – towards a more para-militaristic organization where the emphasis is on power and force, and less on interaction, cooperation and engagement.”
In a foreword to the report, the world’s leading expert on international refugee law, Professor James Hathaway of the University of Michigan Law School, says “States too commonly assume…that migrant detention is somehow a national prerogative that can be automatically exercised, and without any real regard for the usual rules of fair play. This is emphatically not the case under international law, as this study so cogently affirms.”
We have no rights was researched and written by two law students enrolled in the IHRP’s award-winning legal clinic.
“This project taught me invaluable lessons and solidified my commitment to engage in work that changes peoples’ lives,” says Hanna Gros, a second-year law student who is currently working for the UN Refugee Agency in South Africa as part of the IHRP summer fellowship program.
“The chance to see what life was like in jail for the detainees changed my outlook on law and justice,” said Paloma van Groll, now a law school graduate. “Working on this project was the highlight of my time at the Faculty of Law,” 
The report includes a list of targeted recommendations aimed at lawmakers, the Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness, Citizenship and Immigration Canada, and the provinces.
As a first step, it calls on the government to create an independent body/ombudsperson responsible for overseeing and investigating CBSA and to whom immigration detainees can complain, to create and effectively employ alternatives to detention, and to create a presumption against detention beyond 90 days (consistent with practices in the EU and US). The IHRP met with staff from the Minister of Public Safety’s office, as well as the federal NDP and Liberal critics for public safety, MP Randall Garrison and MP Wayne Easter, respectively, in advance of the report’s release to discuss the recommendations.
Leading human rights groups and advocates for the rights of migrants have endorsed the recommendations found in the report. “Immigration detention in Canada is indefinite, arbitrary and cruel and it must end,” says Syed Hussan from the End Immigration Detention Network, which has been advocating for immigration detainees since 2013 when 200 migrants went on hunger strike.
“Separation from families, no comprehensive judicial review process and lack of adequate services in the prison means that detention causes severe stress, depression and degradation of health. For those suffering with prior histories of trauma, immigration detention can be deadly.”
IHRP's executive director, Renu Mandhane, and summer fellow, Logan St. John-Smith, will be travelling to Geneva in July to present the report to the UN Human Rights Committee to assist in its review of Canada’s compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The Committee considers states parties’ compliance with the treaty every five years.


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