Friday, September 23, 2016

In a commentary in the Ottawa Citizen, International Human Rights Program director Samer Muscati discusses the program's report showing that Canada has held hundreds of children in immigration detention, and calls for finding alternatives ("Stop detaining child migrants. Canada has alternatives," September 22, 2016).

Read the full commentary on the Ottawa Citizen website, or below.


Stop detaining child migrants. Canada has alternatives

By Samer Muscati

September 22, 2016

Until he was deported in late 2015, Michel (not his real name), a Canadian citizen, had lived his entire life inside a Canadian detention facility.

When my colleagues met him last November, he was a little older than two, the same age as my own children now. But Michel knew almost nothing of the world outside the claustrophobic walls of the immigration holding center that was his only home. Although he posed no security threat, he lived the life of a prisoner, subject to constant surveillance, guard pat-downs and barbed wire fences.

Michel was deprived of so many simple things our children take for granted – basic nutrition, a healthy environment and unencumbered play with other kids his age. Just to feed him baby cereal, his mother had to obtain special permission.

“It’s hard for him … this is what he thinks is a normal life,” his mother explained. “He knows the rules, the routines, the time for room search (they search the room everyday), he knows to keep the doors open – he knows the things that are confined in this area.”

Michel is by no means unique.

Canada has held hundreds of children in immigration detention over the past several years, as documented in a new report, No Life for a Child: A Roadmap to End Immigration Detention of Children and Family Separation, released by the University of Toronto’s International Human Rights Program on Sept. 22. These include children from war-torn countries such as Syria. They also include Canadian children who are not formally detained, but are living in detention facilities with their detained parents as “guests,” because they have no other reasonable option available.

The medical evidence is clear: children who live in detention for even brief periods experience significant psychological harm that often persists long after they are released. They experience increased symptoms of depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress and suicidal ideation. Many also experience developmental delays and behavioural issues. These mental health consequences often persist long after the children have been released, affecting their adjustment to life post-detention.

Where children are spared detention, they are often separated from their detained parents and, as a result, experience similarly grave mental health consequences.

Rather than detaining children or separating them from their detained parents, the Canadian authorities should release these families unconditionally or use viable alternatives to detention when necessary. These alternatives include less restrictive community-based arrangements that would allow children to reside with their parents, such as reporting obligations, financial deposits, guarantors, electronic monitoring, third-party risk management programs and, in extraordinary circumstances, open accommodation centres.

While these alternatives avoid the negative psychological effects of living in detention and family separation, they continue to serve immigration control objectives. These alternatives allow for the dignified, humane and respectful treatment of children and families, and facilitate the protection of their fundamental rights. They also save the government money as they are more cost-effective than detention or family separation. Authorities can ensure a high rate of compliance when migrants are treated with dignity, understand their rights and duties, receive adequate material support, as well as case management and legal services early and throughout the process.

The stakes for Canada are high: its international reputation as a haven for refugees and as a rights-promoting country is at stake. The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child has repeatedly criticized Canada, expressing grave concern over the scale of child detention in Canada, and the ongoing failure of Canadian immigration officials to adequately consider the best interests of children.

After years of silence, the federal government appears to be taking hold of the issue. It has indicated a strong willingness to reform the immigration detention regime, with a particular view to protecting children and addressing mental health issues. But Ottawa needs to move urgently and methodically to limit these appalling practices.

Its immigration reform agenda should include legislative and policy reforms that would ensure children’s best interests are a primary consideration in all detention-related decisions affecting children. Given the existing discretionary power under Immigration and Refugee Protection Act and current regulations, authorities can limit detention and family separation now through alternatives even before legislative and regulatory amendments are complete.

By not doing so, Canada will fail to meet its international legal obligations. And it will fail the most vulnerable children, like Michel, who need our protection, not detention.

The government should heed the words of Ralph Goodale, the minister of public safety and emergency preparedness, who said it best at Laval Immigration Holding Centre last month: “If we fail in our duty of care to the smallest and most vulnerable among us, then we fail the most basic test of justice and compassion.”