CBC News has learned that over the past year 289 migrant children have been held in detention centres in Canada, many of whom were under the age of 10.

The numbers, provided to the CBC by the Canada Border Services Agency, include children held with parents seeking asylum in Canada and also deportees waiting to leave. Detention is usually based on one of two grounds: either the CBSA is not satisfied with a person's proof of identity, or an officer believes the family is at risk of absconding.

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These statistics cover minors detained for the fiscal year 2011-12. Courtesy of Canada Border Services Agency.

Immigration Minister Jason Kenney says that the detention of children is a last resort and the facilities are appropriate. "They are not jails, and in the case of the Toronto one, for example, the main one, it’s a former three star hotel with a fence around it."

The rooms are clean, in good repair and brightly coloured. Still, the Toronto facility is surrounded by razor wire, ringing even the playground. There are bars on the windows, guards in the hallways and surveillance cameras throughout.   

Mothers and children are in a separate section of the facility and children can visit with their fathers only during designated times.

Dr. Richard Stanwick, president of the Canadian Paediatric Society, told CBC’s Diana Swain that children in detention can suffer lasting effects.

He says studies have shown that many of the immigrant children "have sleep disturbances, others have separation anxiety …some have full-blown post-traumatic stress disorder."

The Canadian Paediatric Society is among those calling for the federal government to create separate facilities for families outside of detention centres. 

'Worst week of my life'

A young woman, who spent a week at the Toronto Immigration Holding Centre with her mother when she was 17 in 2008, told the CBC, "It’s not just that week. It stays with you all your life. It is horrible. I don’t think anyone deserves to be in a holding centre. It is jail. It was the worst week of my life."

Four years after being detained, the young woman says, "I am still very scared when I see a police officer. I hear someone knocking really hard and I think of what happened. I have flashbacks. Any letter from immigration scares me."

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A new bedroom is shown at the Toronto Immigration Holding Centre. The shortest stay for a child at one of these centres in 2011-12 was one day; the longest stay was 70 days. (Mary Sheppard/CBC)

Another woman who was in detention in Toronto with her six-year-old Canadian-born daughter for five months in 2009-10 says, "There was bullying and lots of frustration, more than in a normal neighbourhood. There were too many children. It was awful, just awful."

Her daughter did not go to school for the five months in detention, though she did have some art classes and the mother says she spent a great deal of time helping her daughter through the ordeal. "She would ask me questions constantly about why she was there and I had to keep diverting her attention away from it."

Children's best interest the priority

The Canada Border Service Agency, which is responsible for ensuring refugee claimants have their documents in order and leave the country if their claim is denied, says officers carefully consider the best interests of the children.

CBSA points out that in 2011-12, the 289 children were detained on average for 6.6 days and represented 3.1 per cent of all CBSA detentions.The shortest stay for minors in this time period was one day and the longest was 70 days.

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The Toronto Immigration Holding Centre includes this playroom, as well as a small schoolroom where children have access to a teacher if they are there for longer than a week. (Mary Sheppard/CBC)

In a visit to a Toronto holding centre this week, officials told CBC News they had 10 families — mothers and children — and that they needed to use a new addition that is close to completion. 

As part of the McGill study, Cleveland, a lawyer and professor of psychology, interviewed more than 20 of the Tamil refugee claimants from the MV Sun Sea, which docked at Esquimalt, B.C., in 2010. Twenty-five of the claimants were in detention with children, several of them for more than six months.

"The men and the women were separated, and for them this was a really big thing, being separated, since they were travelling as a family. In levels of trauma, it is pretty off the charts."

Bill C-31, the Protecting Canada's Immigration System Act, which was fully enacted this week, means that when people arrive as a group such as the hundreds of Sri Lankans who arrived in British Columbia on the Sun Sea, they may be held for up to a year before their case is decided.

Kenney says that "Parents in those cases can choose to either put them in the care of children welfare agencies or keep them with them." This option is also offered to other migrant families, many of whom do not want to place their children in foster care.

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A fence surrounds the recreation area at the Toronto Immigration Holding Centre. (Mary Sheppard/CBC)

Bill C-31 also lowers the age of a minor from 18 to 16 if the minor is part of a group designated as irregular arrivals by the minister. A 16-year-old boy, for example, could end up in the men’s section of a provincial prison and be treated as an adult male prisoner. 

The numbers supplied by CBSA do not include Canadian-born children of a parent under a detention order. A Canadian study done for the UN Refugee Agency notes, "for example, if a female asylum seeker travelling with her two-year-old daughter is detained, the daughter will probably not show up in CBSA statistics. CBSA’s rationale is that the daughter is not personally detained and could theoretically leave at any time."

In 2010, Nick Clegg, the U.K.’s deputy minister, announced an end to detention for child migrants in Britain. "We are ending the shameful practice that last year alone saw over a thousand children, a thousand innocent children, in prison."

The co-ordinator for the Global Campaign to End Immigration Detention of Children, Jeroen Van Hove, says that the U.K., Belgium, France, Sweden and Japan are among the countries that have stopped locking families into detention centres when they claim refugee status.

The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child finished in October a 10-year review of how Canada treats its children and how well governments are implementing the Convention on the Rights of the Child. It chided Canada on several fronts, including the demand that Canada stop detaining child refugee claimants.

The committee said it is "deeply concerned about the frequent detention of asylum-seeking children … being done without consideration for the best interests of the child."

If you have any information on this story or other tips, please email investigations@cbc.ca

With files from the CBC's Angela Gilbert and Joseph Loiero