British Columbia

Human rights groups call for end to 'horrid system' that allows CBSA to lock up immigrants in provincial jails

Human rights advocates in B.C. are calling on the province to end its contract with the Canadian Border Services Agency and stop incarcerating immigrants and refugees in provincial jails.

Between April 2019 and March 2020, almost 9,000 people were in immigration detention in Canada

Sara Lopez at her home in Burnaby, B.C., on May 26. In 2012, Lopez was detained at a correctional facility in Maple Ridge while waiting for the approval of her refugee status. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Human rights advocates in B.C. are calling on the province to end its contract with the Canadian Border Services Agency and stop incarcerating immigrants and refugees in provincial jails.

A coalition of human rights organizations and advocates — including the B.C. Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA), Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International — launched a campaign in October urging Canadians to call on the provincial government to stop allowing the CBSA to use provincial jails to lock up people seeking asylum.

"What prompted [the campaign] was years of inaction by the federal government," Samer Muscati with Human Rights Watch said in an email to CBC News.

"So we decided to target provincial governments for their complicity in this horrid system."

According to campaign organizers, between April 2019 and March 2020, almost 9,000 people were in immigration detention in Canada, including 138 infants and children. Since 2000, at least 16 people have lost their lives in these detention centres.

"This is actually a lot more common than people would think. Over the past five years, there have been tens of thousands of people held in immigration detention. So that gives you an idea of just how many people are invisibly experiencing this," said Mara Selanders with the BCCLA.

Selanders says there are only three immigration holding centres in Canada — in Surrey, B.C., Laval, Que., and Toronto. Outside of that, immigrants and refugees are sent to provincial jails while they wait for the approval of their legal status in Canada.

Sara Lopez, right, with Mara Selanders of the BCCLA at her home in Burnaby, B.C. Selanders says Lopez's experience of being detained in a provincial jail is common and a violation of human rights. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

"They experience the same measures of incarceration that anyone convicted under the Criminal Code would experience, down to the attire, down to solitary confinement, restricted access to loved ones, to legal counsel ... It's extremely unfair," she said.

She added that advocates want the CBSA to offer "rights-affirming" alternatives for immigrants and refugees with administrative challenges, such as being able to continue their jobs, live in their communities and receive support from organizations to resolve any status issues they might have under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act.

"We don't believe that alternatives to detention should be any kind of movement-restricting measures, for example, curfews or ankle-monitoring bracelets," she said.

'Get ready to be deported'

Sara Lopez spent three months in jail while waiting for the approval of her refugee claim in B.C.

A human rights activist in Mexico, Lopez said she first sought asylum in the United States and then entered Canada illegally by foot in October 2012. 

With assistance from the Immigrant Services Society of B.C., Lopez started her refugee claim in B.C. before she was detained at the Fraser Regional Correctional Centre.

"I got my pink paper for the eligibility interview date and two days later these CBSA officers appeared at the shelter where I was staying and once my feet were out of the premises, they arrested me," Lopez told CBC News.

Lopez said she was asked why she was seeking asylum in Canada and why she could not return to Mexico.

Lopez says she was diagnosed with PTSD soon after her time in jail in 2012. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

"The officer started saying, 'Did you know that we deport 98 per cent of Mexicans that come to Canada in order to seek asylum? So get ready to be deported.' I just fell down there, everything was broken — my trust. I was confused," she said.

Deemed a flight risk, Lopez says she was held for three months without legal counsel or the ability to speak to her family back home.

"I don't have any friends or family in this country. How am I a flight risk? And no one explained to me what flight risk meant," she said. 

Lopez says she was handcuffed and placed in a correctional facility in Maple Ridge for three months because CBSA officers deemed her a flight risk. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

After her experience, Lopez said she started having panic attacks and nightmares and was unable to walk outside without fear of being detained again. Eventually, she was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Vancouver council vote

Vancouver city council is set to vote Tuesday on a motion asking the provincial government to end its contract with the CBSA and prevent officers from detaining immigrants and refugees in provincial jails.

"I just don't think it's right to put people in jail just because they are coming to our country," said Coun. Jean Swanson, who is bringing the motion to council.

Swanson said she once met a woman in jail who was being held for immigration administrative issues.

A woman with white hair and wearing a yellow hoodie smiles for the camera.
Vancouver Coun. Jean Swanson says a motion calling on the B.C. government to stop incarcerating immigrants and refugees in provincial jails is consistent with the city's policy of access to services without fear. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

"She had a hearing impairment and one of the other women that was jailed with me knew sign language. That was the first time she got to communicate with anybody," said Swanson, who had been jailed for protesting against the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion.

"They put her in extreme detention and they moved us over to moderate, so she was left with no way to communicate again."

Swanson said her motion is consistent with the city's access to services without fear policy, "which means that people with uncertain immigration status have the right to get a leisure access card and swim for free, go to the libraries, do all the things that everybody else can do."


Christina Jung is a digital reporter for CBC. Got a story idea? Email or tweet @CBC_Cjung