Refugees face mental health risk with new law

Bill C-31, which allows some refugee claimants to be detained for months, could negatively affect their mental health, a new study warns.

'Irregular arrivals' provision can do real damage, article charges

Police in British Columbia board the MV Sun Sea in 2010. Under a law passed last month some refugees who arrive on simliar ships can be deemed 'irregular arrivals' and detained for long periods. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

Detaining refugee claimants deemed "irregular arrivals" for long periods of time could harm their mental health, according to an article published Monday.

In a commentary piece published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal on Monday, authors Janet Cleveland and Cécile Rousseau say Bill C-31, which became law on June 28, "could potentially have a serious negative impact on the mental health of refugees."

The new law made amendments to the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act and the Balanced Refugee Reform Act, including allowing Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney to designate groups of refugees who have come to Canada as "irregular arrivals." The designation can be given to anyone over the age of 16 and they can be detained until the minister orders their release or a determination is made to allow their refugee claim to proceed.

Children could be seriously affected by the detention process, the study's authors say. Children aged 16 to 18 would be incarcerated as if they were adults, and children under 16 will either be taken away from their parents and put in foster care or kept with their mothers and separated from their fathers.

The Canadian Paediatric Society, the Canadian Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, the Paediatric Chairs of Canada, and the Urban Public Health Network of Canada have urged the government to ensure that children are not detained or separated from their parents.

The article says there is consistent evidence that both situations are harmful to children. Lengthy family separation and prolonged uncertainty can have negative health consequences, Cleveland and Rosseau say.

"Numerous studies have shown high levels of psychiatric symptoms among detained refugee claimants, even after short period," they write. They say depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder are among the mental health problems experienced by detained refugees.

The authors cite one study from Australia that found more than 1,100 incidents of self-harm and six suicides among 6,000 people who were detained for a median of 10 months.

Even after the claimants are released their stress continues as they await their fate and to see whether their applications to stay permanently are accepted, the article says.

'Minimize harm to children'

"As health professionals, it is our responsibility to urge the government to minimize harm to children, pregnant women, trauma survivors and other vulnerable people," the authors write. "Children should not be incarcerated or separated from their parents."

They call for the detention periods to be as short as possible. Cleveland, a psychologist, researcher and  former lawyer who specializes in refugee mental health issues, is affiliated with McGill University; Rousseau is a professor in the psychology department at the university and also specializes in refugee health.

Both researchers appeared before the House of Commons Citizenship and Immigration committee in May on Bill C-31, describing the conditions they saw during their visits to immigration holding centres and the mental health of the detainees.

The health of refugees has been under a spotlight recently because of cuts made to the coverage given to refugee claimants by the federal government. Rules that limit the services covered for most refugees took effect June 30 .