Border agency reports big drop in number of long-term detainees

The number of people being held for more than 90 days in immigration detention centres has declined by more than a third since 2012-15, statistics from the Canada Border Services Agency show.

CBSA has finalized plans to build 2 new immigration holding centres and to retrofit another

A guard stands outside the gates of an immigrant holding centre in Laval, Que. Immigration holding facilities in Vancouver and Laval will be replaced as part of a $138-million overhaul intended to improve detention conditions for newcomers to Canada. (Graham Hughes/Canadian Press)

The number of people being held for more than 90 days in immigration detention centres has declined by almost a third this year over last year, according to statistics from the Canada Border Services Agency.

The figures show that the number of detainees being held for three months or longer dropped by 29.9 per cent in 2016-17 compared with 2015-16. They also show a decline since 2012-13 of 35.3 per cent. 

The Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) told CBC News that it is using federal funding announced last year to expand the use of alternatives to detention.

"The funding received is dedicated to developing and deploying a technology-enabled voice reporting solution that will make it easier for low-risk persons to comply with reporting conditions imposed by CBSA officers or the Immigration and Refugee Board, while living in the community," a CBSA spokesperson said in an email to CBC.

Detainees are also now locked up an average of 19.5 days, down from 23.1 days last year, according to the agency's statistics.

Last year, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale announced $138 million for a new national immigration detention framework, with the aim of creating a more humane system.

Part of the money is being spent on a new immigration holding centre (IHC) in Surrey, B.C., which should open in December 2018. The centre in Laval, Que., is scheduled for completion in 2021. The Toronto holding centre is also being upgraded.

"By July 2018 the Toronto IHC will be equipped to house higher-risk detainees, allowing more individuals in provincial detention facilities to be transferred to the IHC on a case-by-case basis," CBSA said in the email.

Detention in jails

On any given day in Canada, hundreds of people are detained under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act. Last year the border agency detained 6,251 people, 32.6 per cent of which were held at non-CBSA facilities such as provincial jails, even though they had not been charged with a crime. 

"Detaining people long-term at short-term detention facilities is extremely problematic, and especially when some of the detentions are going on for a very long time, into the years," said Lorne Waldman, a prominent Toronto immigration and refugee lawyer.

Immigration detainees are sent to provincial jails when they're high-risk, aren't close to a holding centre or, in the Vancouver area, held for more than 48 hours. 

Immigration lawyer Lorne Waldman says the Canada Border Services Agency is still in need of proper oversight. (Colin Perkel /Canadian Press)

Waldman said the new facilities will be a "huge improvement." But he also expressed concern that the federal government has still not delivered on oversight for the border agency.

"Until the government fulfils the promise it made to create an accountability mechanism for the CBSA, so that people can make complaints and so that the CBSA feels that they're accountable, we're not going to see any real improvements," he told CBC News. 

"There've been deaths in custody and there was one inquest, but there haven't been inquests in other cases. So why is it that people die in custody? Who was at fault?"

Ensuring accountability

In May, the public safety minister asked former Privy Council clerk Mel Cappe to determine whether the CBSA needs oversight and, if so, how it would work.

According to the minister's spokesperson, Goodale has already received the report and its recommendations.

"Our next steps are under consideration. We want to ensure Canadians are confident in the system of accountability for the agencies that strive to keep them safe. The review framework must be coherent, without wasteful duplication or gaps," wrote Scott Bardsley.

He said that the government has already passed legislation to set up a national security and intelligence committee of parliamentarians and introduced a bill to create a new expert review body that would be permitted to review the actions of the CBSA.

In July, the federal government signed a contract with the Canadian Red Cross for the monitoring of those being held at detention facilities, to ensure they comply with domestic and international standards.