In a historic move, British Columbia’s Public Safety minister announced in July that the province will end the use of provincial jails for confining immigration detainees. The announcement, which followed a review of the province’s contract with the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) to facilitate the use of provincial correctional facilities for detaining migrants, is the first of its kind in Canada.
The review was prompted by calls from a coalition of human rights advocates including the BC Civil Liberties Association, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International, and found that the use of provincial facilities does not align with the province’s commitment to upholding human rights standards. In his statement announcing the decision, the minister said: “In light of these findings, the Province is ending its arrangement with the CBSA. BC Corrections will provide the CBSA with 12 months’ written notice as required under the current arrangement. BC Corrections is committed to working with the CBSA to develop a safe and efficient transition plan that achieves our common commitment to public safety while ensuring the rights of individuals are preserved and protected.”
Unlike most major industrialised countries, Canada continues to employ maximum security provincial jails for immigration detention purposes. While the percentage of immigration detainees held in criminal facilities has slowly fallen in recent years (from 43 percent in 2014-2015 to 32 percent in 2019-2020), the practice nevertheless continues—and the proportion of detainees in criminal facilities actually increased during the COVID-19 pandemic. In British Columbia, non-nationals have been held in facilities including the Alouette Correctional Centre for Women, Fraser Regional Correctional Center, and North Fraser Pretrial Center.
The policy has been the subject of repeated criticisms from observers, with many challenging the indefinite incarceration of vulnerable individuals alongside criminally convicted individuals and individuals awaiting court proceedings—as well as the fact that most provincial jails lack necessary services, such as mental health care, to support non-nationals.
As Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International noted in a 2021 joint report, “While immigration detainees are not serving criminal sentences, they are often treated like people incarcerated for criminal offences: handcuffed, shackled, searched, subjected to solitary confinement, and restricted to small spaces with rigid routines and under constant surveillance, with severely limited access to the outside world. In provincial jails, many immigration detainees are confined in tense and even dangerous environments where they may be subjected to violence.”
International human rights mechanisms have also repeatedly criticised the use of criminal facilities for detaining migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers. As the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention noted in its 2018 Revised Deliberation No. 5 on deprivation of liberty of migrants: “The detention of asylum seekers or other irregular migrants must not take place in facilities such as police stations, remand institutions, prisons and other such facilities since these are designed for those within the realm of the criminal justice system. The mixing of migrants and other detainees who are held under the remit of the criminal justice system must not take place.”
British Columbia’s decision is a critical step towards ensuring the human rights of refugees, migrants, and asylum seekers, and observers hope that it will encourage other Canadian provinces to follow suit.
- British Columbia, “Minister’s Statement on Ending Immigration Detention Arrangement with CBSA,” 21 July 2022, https://news.gov.bc.ca/releases/2022PSSG0050-001139
- Human Rights Watch, “Canada: British Columbia to End Immigration Detention in Jails,” 21 July 2022, https://www.hrw.org/news/2022/07/21/canada-british-columbia-end-immigration-detention-jails
- Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, “I Didn’t Feel Like a Human in There”: Immigration Detention in Canada and its Impact on Mental Health,” 17 June 2021, https://www.hrw.org/report/2021/06/17/i-didnt-feel-human-there/immigration-detention-canada-and-its-impact-mental
- British Columbia’s Office of the Human Rights Commissioner, “Submission Regarding Immigration Detention in Provincial Correctional Centres,” March 2022, https://bchumanrights.ca/wp-content/uploads/BCOHRC_Mar2022_Immigration-detention-submission.pdf
- Global Detention Project, “Immigration Detention in Canada: Progressive Reforms and Missed Opportunities,” April 2021, https://www.globaldetentionproject.org/immigration-detention-in-canada-progressive-reforms-and-missed-opportunities
- BC Poverty Reduction Coalition, “End Immigration Detention in BC Jails!” https://www.bcpovertyreduction.ca/posts-and-releases/end-immigration-detention-in-bc-jails
- Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, “Revised Deliberation No. 5 on Deprivation of Liberty of MIgrants,” 7 February 2018, https://www.ohchr.org/sites/default/files/Documents/Issues/Detention/RevisedDeliberation_AdvanceEditedVersion.pdf