The Canadian government said it "can and must do better" when it comes to taking care of immigration detainees after Toronto refugee advocates repeated warnings that sick and mentally ill detainees are often held in provincial jails. 

Two men held by the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) died in two separate incidents in Ontario this spring, while a 24-year-old man detainee died at the Edmonton Remand Centre on Saturday.

The End Immigration Detention Network said across Canada 15 people have died in immigration detention while in CBSA custody since 2000.

Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale, who has said previously that he's concerned about the deaths, revealed in a statement released Sunday that the Liberal government is reviewing the detention program.

"The government is examining CBSA's National immigration detention program and how best to provide the agency with appropriate review mechanisms," Goodale's office said.

The statement noted the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees considers Canada's refugee system as among the best in the world, but "we can and must do better."

Anthony Navaneelan

Anthony Navaneelan, staff lawyer at the Refugee Law Office at Legal Aid Ontario in Toronto, says prisons are not appropriate places to treat detainees. (CBC)

Anthony Navaneelan, staff lawyer at the Refugee Law Office at Legal Aid Ontario, and Dr. Michaela Beder, a psychiatrist at St. Michael's Hospital, urged the CBSA last week to stop putting detainees with serious physical and mental health problems in prisons, which they say is not appropriate for treatment.

Navaneelan said he has represented detainees with serious health problems who have been moved from immigration holding centres, where there is limited medical care, to provincial jails, where there are full medical facilities.

He said detainees, when moved to jails, end up being treated as criminals.

Ensuring proper medical care

Travis O'Brien, CBSA spokesman for the Greater Toronto Area, confirmed on Saturday that the agency places immigration detainees with serious health problems in jails to enable them to receive proper medical care.

He said detainees are assessed by medical professionals as soon as possible after they are admitted to an Immigration Holding Centre (IHC) in Toronto.

"If a detainee's condition is not able to be adequately handled in the lower risk environment of a CBSA IHC, a detainee may be transferred to a provincial jail with dedicated on-site medical and mental health support. In addition, detainees held within correctional facilities have access to that facility's health care services, including mental health support."

Dr. Michaela Beder

Dr. Michaela Beder, a psychiatrist at St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto, says detainees with severe health problems need to be in hospital. (CBC)

O'Brien noted providing access to proper medical care is a priority for the agency, especially for vulnerable individuals such as those who are sick, disabled or have mental health problems. 

According to O'Brien, CBSA policy stipulates detention should be avoided in those cases. If detention is required, for example, because the detainee has been deemed a danger to public safety, O'Brien said the CBSA tries to make it as short in duration as possible. 

When detained, whether in an immigration holding centre or provincial jail, O'Brien said the CBSA provides monitoring and medical care as needed.

Getting details while detained

Navaneelan said detainees are not given the same rights as criminal inmates when they are moved from holding centres to jail. He said they are denied adequate notice, written reasons, disclosure of the facts of their cases, the right to call a lawyer, a cooling off period and their lawyers are not informed of the transfer until they call the holding centres.

O'Brien confirmed detainees are not given much notice and no written reasons.

"When feasible, i.e. during regular business hours, the detainee will be verbally informed immediately prior to transfer. The detainee is not provided with written reasons for transfer," he said.

Jail

A lawyer says immigration detainees, when transferred to provincial jails for medical treatment, are not given the same rights as criminal inmates. (Shutterstock)

"Detained individuals can speak to a CBSA officer about any aspect of their detention. The officer is available by phone for any facility and also conducts regular site visits."

O'Brien said individuals may raise concerns with the Immigration and Refugee Board when it reviews their detention and with officials from the Canadian Red Cross and the UNHCR.

The CBSA has said it transfers detainees to 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.