Thursday, September 22, 2016

In recent years, hundreds of children have been housed in immigration detention with detrimental consequences for their mental health

“‘No Life for a Child’: A Roadmap to End Immigration Detention of Children and Family Separation” Canada should urgently implement alternatives to detaining children rather than housing them in immigration detention facilities or separating them from their detained parents, the University of Toronto’s International Human Rights Program (IHRP) said in a report released today. In failing to do so, Canada is violating its international legal obligations.

Over the past several years, Canada has held hundreds of children in immigration detention, including children from Syria and other war-torn regions. According to figures obtained by the IHRP through access to information requests, an average of 242 children were detained each year between 2010 and 2014. These figures are an underestimate because they do not account for all children living with their parents in detention as ‘guests’, who were not subject to formal detention orders. Some of these include children with Canadian citizenship.

“The immigration detention of children does nothing to increase public safety, but has an immensely detrimental and lasting impact on an already vulnerable population,” said Samer Muscati, IHRP director. “Instead of locking children up or separating them from their detained parents, these children need meaningful protection in community-based alternatives to detention.”

The 70-page report, “‘No Life for a Child’: A Roadmap to End Immigration Detention of Children and Family Separation” (PDF), was written by recent JD graduate Hanna Gros '16 and JD student Yolanda Song. It uncovers the deficient legal underpinnings and detrimental practical implications of Canadian immigration detention for children. The report makes 11 recommendations to ensure that Canada complies with its international human rights obligations, and analyzes various international models of alternatives to detention and family separation. The report concludes that children and families with children should be released from detention outright or given access to community-based alternatives to detention, such as reporting obligations, financial deposits, guarantors, and electronic monitoring.

“‘No Life for a Child’” is based on IHRP interviews with detained mothers and children, as well as mental health experts, social workers, child rights activists, and legal professionals. The report profiles children, including infants, who lived in detention or were separated from their families. The report finds that conditions of detention are woefully unsuited for children. Immigration Holding Centres resemble medium-security prisons, with significant restrictions on privacy and liberty, inadequate access to education, insufficient recreational opportunities and poor nutrition.

One of the children profiled in the report, Michel (not his real name), spent the first 28 months of his life living under these conditions in a Toronto detention facility. Michel’s mother was detained when she was two-months pregnant, because Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) suspected that she was a flight risk. After giving birth to Michel, the two continued to be detained for nearly three years before they were deported in late 2015. According to Michel’s mother, although Michel was a Canadian citizen, “he lives the same life as a detained child.”

According to medical experts, immigration detention causes serious and lasting psychological harm to children, including depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress, and suicidal ideation. The report finds that it is the fact of detention — not just the conditions of detention — that is fundamentally harmful to children’s well-being. The report also finds that family separation is not an adequate alternative to child detention because it causes significant psychological distress, and may expose children to the hardships of the child welfare system. Instead, the report recommends that families should be given access to community-based alternatives to detention.

The report builds upon years of advocacy by refugee and child rights groups in Canada that have called on the government to ensure that children’s best interests are a primary consideration in decisions affecting them, and ultimately, to end child detention and family separation. International bodies have also repeatedly criticized Canada for its immigration detention practices.

 The report notes recent initiatives by Canada’s federal government and CBSA indicating a strong willingness to reform the immigration detention regime, with a particular view to protecting children and addressing mental health issues. The government has also expressed an intention to engage extensively with non-governmental organizations and other civil society stakeholders in the process of revising relevant policy and designing new programs.

The report provides recommendations on policy and legislative reforms, and builds upon the recommendations of the IHRP’s 2015 report, “‘We Have No Rights’: Arbitrary imprisonment and cruel treatment of migrants with mental health issues in Canada.” Given the existing discretion under the law, authorities can implement these recommendations in practice even before legal changes are completed.

“After years of silence and inaction, the Canadian government and CBSA are taking serious steps that will hopefully bring us closer to ending child detention and family separation,” said Hanna Gros, IHRP Senior Fellow and co-author of the report. “But Ottawa needs to move quickly and deliberately to end the needless suffering of children and their parents.”

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