Toronto

Stop transfer of immigration detainees to provincial jails, lawyers tell minister

Legal specialists urge minister in letter to cancel federal-provincial agreement

yasir naqvi

More than 100 legal professionals are urging Yasir Naqvi, Ontario Community Safety and Correctional Services Minister, to cancel a federal-provincial agreement that allows the Canada Border Service Agency to transfer immigration detainees, including those with mental health issues, from immigration holding centres to provincial jails. (CBC)

 shares

 

More than 100 lawyers, legal scholars and specialists are calling on the Ontario government to cancel an agreement that allows the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) to transfer immigration detainees to provincial jails, whom they say are exposed to "profoundly disturbing" conditions..

In an open letter to Yasir Naqvi, Ontario Community Safety and Correctional Services Minister, the legal professionals say they are "alarmed" by the practice. They say it raises "very serious" human rights and concerns about the rule of law.

"We are gravely concerned that there are no public laws or regulations governing when and in what circumstances an immigration detainee can be transferred to, and incarcerated in, a provincial jail," the letter reads. "We call on the Government of Ontario to bring an end to this harmful practice immediately."

The letter follows a growing outcry over the transfer of detainees with physical and mental health problems to jails. Fifteen people have died in immigration detention while in CBSA custody since 2000. 

hi-jail-cell-bars-getty-sb10062143p-001

The Canada Border Services Agency transfers immigration detainees from immigration holding centres to provincial jails when they are considered high risk. That includes detainees who have criminal backgrounds, outstanding charges, a history of violence, are an escape risk, or pose a danger to themselves or others. (Getty Images)

Detainees are transferred by the CBSA from immigration holding centres to provincial jails when they are considered high risk. That includes detainees who have criminal backgrounds, outstanding charges, a history of violence, are an escape risk, or pose a danger to themselves or others.

The agency can also transfer detainees with serious physical and mental health problems who cannot get adequate medical care at holding centres.

The letter urges the minister to cancel the federal-provincial agreement, signed in October 2014, that allows transfers to continue, and during the notice period of one year, to stop accepting the transfer of any detainees with physical and mental health problems. 

The letter says one third of the 7,300 immigration detainees held by the CBSA in 2013 were transferred to provincial jails in Canada. It say decisions to transfer detainees appear to be made on an ad hoc basis and detainees are denied basic legal rights given to criminal inmates.

"Immigration detainees are rarely given any notice that they are going to be transferred to a jail; are provided with no disclosure of any evidence used to inform the transfer decision; and receive no written reasons for why the transfer occurred," the letter reads.

"On one day, a detainee who has no criminal history or charge may be with her family in low security immigration holding centre, and the next she could be wearing a prison jumpsuit and be behind bars in a maximum security prison, based on the decision of a single officer whom she may have never met." 

Anthony Navaneelan

Anthony Navaneelan, staff lawyer at the Refugee Law Office at Legal Aid Ontario in Toronto, said immigration detainees with medical challenges are transferred to Ontario jails because immigration holding centres don't have the necessary staff to provide them with medical care. But he said prisons are not appropriate places for treatment and the detainees are treated like criminals when they have done nothing wrong. (CBC)

It says detainees are exposed to conditions that may include solitary confinement and situations where the jails are locked down. 

"Prisons are part of the criminal justice system. Their principal function is to hold those charged with and convicted of criminal wrongdoing. Individuals held for immigration purposes should not be transferred to, and detained in, these institutions." 

The letter notes that the federal Immigration and Refugee Protection Act governs detention, but the federal-provincial agreement means incarceration of detainees has become a provincial matter.

Lawyers who signed the letter include Samer Muscati, director of the International Human Rights Program at the University of Toronto, Anthony Navaneelan, staff lawyer at the refugee law office of Legal Aid Ontario, Sukanya Pillay, executive director of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, and Maureen Silcoff, president of the Jewish Refugee Action Network.

 Naqvi was not available for comment.

More On This Story

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Submission Policy

Note: The CBC does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comments, you acknowledge that CBC has the right to reproduce, broadcast and publicize those comments or any part thereof in any manner whatsoever. Please note that comments are moderated and published according to our submission guidelines.