Border agency to announce new alternatives to immigration detention

Canada's border agency is set to announce changes aimed at releasing more refugee claimants and other foreign nationals safely into the community while their immigration status is being resolved.

More GPS, voice reporting and community monitoring to be used instead of holding centres

A guard stands outside the gates of an immigrant holding centre in Laval, Que. The Canada Border Services Agency has announced an expanded framework for alternatives to detention. (Graham Hughes/Canadian Press)

Canada's border agency is set to announce changes aimed at releasing more refugee claimants and other foreign nationals safely into the community while their immigration status is being resolved.

An expanded framework for alternatives to detention will provide "risk-based, nationally consistent programming" for individuals deemed suitable for release, according to the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA).

Agreements have been signed with third-party service providers, including the John Howard Society, to track people released into the community with conditions. Details of the changes are expected to be announced in coming days.

According to CBSA spokesman Barre Campell, in addition to release on reporting conditions, a cash deposit or a bondsperson, the expanded framework will include:

  • a community case management and supervision program that will align in-community support services with individuals' needs to mitigate any risk factors;
  • a voice reporting system available across the country that will allow people to comply with reporting conditions by using voice biometrics to report to the CBSA at a designated time;
  • expanded electronic supervision tools such as the use of GPS electronic monitoring on a pilot basis.

The issue of immigration detention became a lightning rod in the U.S. after President Donald Trump announced a "zero tolerance" policy which separated thousands of children from their parents at the border. Trump retreated after an international outcry, and the government is now in the process of reuniting many of those children with their parents to comply with a federal court order.

Thousands detained

In Canada, there were 7,364 people held in detention for an average of 12 days in a nine-month period ending March 31, 2018. In that same period, 155 minors were held in detention; five were unaccompanied by parents.

Catherine Latimer, executive director of the John Howard Society of Canada, said the organization's role is to provide community support and supervision for people waiting for an outcome in their case.

"We believe that people should not be needlessly detained if they can be safely supported and supervised in the community," she said.

Foreign nationals can be detained if they're considered a flight risk, a danger to the public, or if their identity can't be confirmed.

Another ground for detention is inadmissibility to Canada based on security risk, human rights violations, or for serious criminality.

CBSA has three holding centres, in Laval, Que., Toronto and Vancouver, and uses provincial jails for high-risk detainees or those in areas not served by a holding centre.

'Serious concerns' about detention system

Alex Neve, secretary general of Amnesty International Canada, said changes brought in in the last couple of years have made some progress, but he still has serious concerns about the detention system.

"This is not a situation of criminals, and we need to recognize that taking people's liberty away is a very serious human rights step to take, and we should be making sure we're doing so in a much more limited manner," he said.

The Liberals announced a new National Immigration Detention Framework (NIDF), in August 2016, which earmarked up $138 million to improve immigration detention infrastructure, provide better mental and medical health services at CBSA immigration holding centres, expand partnerships and alternatives to detention, and reduce the number of minors in detention.

In November 2017, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale announced directives to restrict detention of minors, which included looking for alternatives to detention such as curfew, residency rules, or paying a cash bond. That directive said the welfare of the child is a "primary consideration," and must be top of mind in any decision about the parents' detention.

Neve welcomed those moves, but said they have not led to any significant decline in the number of detentions. He said there must be a more robust system for reviewing decisions, an independent oversight mechanism, and a maximum cap on the days in detention.

Right now, an individual can be detained indefinitely, and some have been held for months or even years.

Even with more meaningful, sophisticated alternatives to detention, Neve said any intrusive restrictions to liberty must used as judiciously as possible.

"We have to challenge ourselves more widely to ensure that in a whole host of other ways that we're very careful about when and how we take someone's liberty away or restrict it in any way for immigration purposes," he said.