Thousands of migrants ended up in Canadian jails with criminals

The human rights organizations Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch criticized the Canadian immigration system, under which illegal migrants are held indefinitely in special immigration centers, and sometimes – along with criminals. The report was released Thursday, June 17.

“Many people have developed mental health problems. (…) This is where you have to be very strong not to lose your mind and stay who you are. (…) When I was putting everything together – all the gravity [of that situation] and the fact that I was away from my wife and children – it was very hard. I just prayed,” said Charles, who found himself in provincial prisons twice in 2015 and 2020.

Despite Canada’s established reputation for hospitality, thousands of people are jailed every year for immigration-related reasons, the report said. Those detained ranges from those fleeing persecution to those simply seeking a better life, and even those who have lived in the country since childhood. According to them, detained immigrants are held in harsh conditions, and often without a set release date.

According to the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA), the number of detainees in the said category increased between 2016 and 2020, until it peaked between 2019 and 2020 at 8,825.

Against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, Canadian authorities released an unprecedented number of immigrants, but the conditions of those who remained in detention became even harsher. For example, some of them were severely restricted in their access to telephones and showers. Because of this situation, during the first year of the pandemic, those detained in an immigration center in the Montreal area went on hunger strike three times.

Human rights activists point out that the CBSA, which has a wide range of powers (among other things, employees of this body are allowed to arrest, search and detain), is not controlled by society at all. According to their data, attorneys, mental health professionals, former immigrant detainees, and legal representatives, as well as citizens who assist migrants, constantly complain about the abuse of immigrants by CBSA.

According to published data, between 2016 and 2020, about two-thirds of immigration detainees were held in detention centers that resemble medium-security prisons. In addition, during the same period, authorities placed immigrants in provincial prisons, where they were housed with people charged with criminal offenses, awaiting trial, and with convicts serving criminal sentences of up to two years. Many of these prisons, however, were high-security facilities. There is also evidence that the smallest number of immigrants were held in other facilities, including police stations.

Meanwhile, amid the outbreak of coronavirus infection, about half of the immigrants ended up in such prisons.

Although immigrants do not serve criminal sentences like convicted prisoners, it is claimed that they are treated no better: they are also handcuffed, searched, may be held in solitary confinement, with strict routines and constant surveillance, and with limited access to the outside world. It is stressed that in prisons they may be threatened with violence.

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International insist that this system of treatment of immigrants has devastating mental health consequences.