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UN Agency Adds Voice to Growing Global Clamour Over Canada’s Immigration Detention Practices

Edmonton Institution, a maximum security correctional centre and one of Canada's federal penitentiaries. (Source: CBC News,
Edmonton Institution, a maximum security correctional centre and one of Canada’s federal penitentiaries. (Source: CBC News,

The Canadian government’s plans to use federal prisons for immigration detention has drawn the rebuke of the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD) as well as the ire of an international coalition of civil society groups, who have launched a petition demanding that Canada abandon the plans. 

The battle over prisons

Canada is among the few countries in the developing world that continues to use prisons for immigration detention purposes, as the Global Detention Project has long noted in its reports about the country. Researchers have also documented the harmful impacts of placing immigration detainees in Canadian prisons, where they “are perceived and treated as equal to convicted offenders” and co-mingle and share space with them. Additionally, evidence shows that immigration detainees lack information about their rights, encounter difficulties accessing services, face restrictions on outdoor access–amounting to a mere half an hour daily–and have limited contact with their families. Several detainees’ deaths have also been recorded in Canadian prisons.

Following lengthy civil society campaigns opposing this practice, by March 2024 all 10 Canadian provinces had pledged to end their agreements with the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) for use of their prisons. But the Canadian government has countered these developments by pushing to introduce the practice of incarcerating migrants deemed at “high risk” in federal penitentiaries, which advocates have lambasted as being “inconsistent with basic Canadian values.”

In early May 2024, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the Global Detention Project, and several dozen other national and international groups issued and open letter to the Canadian government denouncing their plan: “Using federal prisons to incarcerate people in immigration detention is inherently punitive and inconsistent with international human rights standards. … We call on the federal government to immediately cancel its plans to use prisons for immigration detention.”

Their letter stressed the often traumatic health consequences of placing migrants and asylum seekers in prisons, who can include “refugee claimants fleeing traumatic experiences and persecution, and persons with mental health conditions.” The signatories called instead for increased investment in a”community-based organisations that provide tailored and compassionate support independently of” immigration authorities.

Immigration detention in Canada

Despite being rated the most welcoming country in the world, since 2017 Canada has detained tens of thousands of migrants, including children and refugees. According to a joint HRW-AI campaign, between April 2019 and March 2023, out of nearly 19,000 immigration detainees, 185 were infants and children. Many migrant detainees have been incarcerated in provincial jails across the country, including maximum-security facilities, and experience “Canada’s most restrictive confinement conditions.” Canada is also one of the few countries in the global north with no legal limit to the duration of detention, meaning that migrants can be detained for months or even years. 

The Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) remains the main law enforcement agency in Canada without independent civilian oversight. The agency has broad discretion regarding the placement of immigration detainees, and its decisions are not bound by any legal standards to determine whether they are held in provincial prisons or dedicated detention facilities. CBSA has previously relied on agreements with federal authorities to incarcerate migrants for non-criminal purposes in provincial jails. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International Canada have both identified this practice as a violation of international human rights standards because “incarceration in these facilities is inherently punitive in nature.”

UN concerns

In May 2024, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention conducted an official visit to Canada to investigate a range of detention and imprisonment concerns in the country, including immigration detention practices. After the visit, the WGAD reported shortcomings in official oversight of Canada’s immigration detention practices, indefinite detention, and worrying trends in the use of prisons for immigration detention, among other concerns.

In a press release issued at the end of the visit, the WGAD said: “The plight of detained migrants, who have not been charged or convicted of any crime, is seriously concerning. … Independent oversight of the Canada Border Services Agency, which manages migration detention, is lacking and the absence of any maximum term of migration detention also heightens the risk of arbitrary detention. Many migrants are deprived of liberty for months and in some cases years. While the experts welcomed the ending of migration detention in provincial jails, they were alarmed by reports of plans to use federal correctional facilities to imprison persons detained purely on the basis of their migration status.”

Arbitrary detention Canada Conditions in Detention Criminal Facilities Deaths in Detention Indefinite Detention United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention