Thursday, February 23, 2017

In a commentary in the Ottawa Citizen, International Human Rights Program (IHRP) director Samer Muscati outlines the problem of immigration detention of children in Canada and proposes solutions ("More than 200 Canadian children have been held in immigration detention since 2011. Let's end that inhumanity," February 23, 2017).

The op-ed is based on the IHRP report Invisible Citizens: Canadian Children in Immigration Detention.


More than 200 Canadian children have been held in immigration detention since 2011. Let's end that inhumanity

By Samer Muscati

February 23, 2017

Canadian children, some only a few months old, are being housed in prison-like conditions across the country. Others are forcibly removed from their detained parents. These children are the victims of serious flaws in Canada’s immigration detention system, leaving them and their parents desperate and damaged in violation of international law.

I witnessed this first-hand in early November 2016, when my colleagues and I met a young mother in the Toronto Immigration Holding Centre. Selena was sitting behind a thick plexiglass window – the same type of barrier used in prisons to separate inmates from visitors. In Selena’s case, this barrier separated her not only from the world beyond the detention facility, but also from her eight-year-old, Canadian-born daughter, Alicia (not their real names). “It breaks my heart that when she comes to visit I cannot hold her,” Selena said. As a parent myself, I couldn’t help but think of my own daughters.

A few days earlier, officers from Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) had detained Selena for failing to abide by her deportation order. She was arrested outside her home while taking her daughter to school. “I’ve never been apart from my daughter,” she told us. “If I die tonight, I will have died of a broken heart because I’ve never been away from her for so long.”

While Selena was offered no choice, other detained parents sometimes have to choose between two dreadful options: separate from their Canadian children or live with them as prisoners. Either way, parents are left unable to effectively protect and care for their children.

According to Invisible Citizens: Canadian Children in Immigration Detention, a new  report from the University of Toronto’s International Human Rights Program (IHRP), parents who ultimately have their children stay with them in detention quickly find themselves down a legal rabbit hole. Canadian children in this predicament are considered “guests” or de facto detainees. They are particularly vulnerable because they do not benefit from the legal safeguards that protect formally detained non-Canadian children. Since de facto detained children are not legally recognized as being detained, they are not subject to detention review hearings. In other words, they are legally invisible in the immigration detention system.

The IHRP interviewed nine detained and formerly detained mothers of Canadian children from the Middle East, West Africa, Central America, and the Caribbean. Without exception, the mothers expressed deep anguish about the detrimental consequences of their detention on their children’s physical and mental health. Their children had difficulty sleeping, lost their appetite for food and interest in play, and developed symptoms of depression and separation anxiety, as well as a variety of physical symptoms. These anecdotal reports are widely confirmed by studies from Canada and abroad that document the harmful health consequences of even brief periods of confinement and family separation.

Just how many Canadian children are subject to immigration detention and family separation? Through access to information requests, the IHRP learned that since 2011, Canada has housed more than 200 Canadian children in detention in the Toronto Immigration Holding Centre alone. This figure is an underestimate of the total number of Canadian children housed in immigration detention since the data was incomplete and only accounted for one facility in the country. Over the past year, CBSA made some progress by significantly reducing the frequency of child detention, but these advances remain tenuous as long as they are not formally entrenched in law and practice.

While there is some data on Canadian children held in detention, the number of Canadian children separated from their parents is unclear since this data is not collected. But one thing is crystal clear: The Canadian government should move quickly to end child detention and family separation.

Ottawa and CBSA have indicated a strong willingness to reform the immigration detention regime, particularly with a view to protecting children. The authorities have also engaged extensively with non-governmental organizations and other civil society stakeholders in the process of revising relevant policy and designing new programs. These are good signs, but the federal government should move urgently to implement viable alternatives to both detention and family separation.

Where unconditional release is inappropriate, families should be accommodated in community-based non-custodial programs that involve, for example, reporting obligations, financial deposits and guarantors.

These alternatives to detention allow for more dignified, humane and respectful treatment of children and families, and facilitate the protection of their fundamental rights. They are also significantly more cost-effective than either detention or family separation. Studies show that authorities can ensure a high rate of compliance with immigration proceedings when individuals are treated with dignity, understand their rights and duties, and receive adequate material support, including case-management and legal services, early and throughout the process.

Until the government moves to formally adopt measures such as these, however, Canada will continue be in violation of international human rights standards that will harm its reputation as a multicultural safe haven for refugees and migrants. Ottawa must act forcefully to ensure that no child like Alicia – Canadian or otherwise – is deprived of their parents’ affection, or contact with the world that lies beyond thick plexiglass windows.