As It Happens

Children still being placed in immigration detention 'on a regular basis': report

Jenny Jeanes with Action Réfugiés Montréal says that Canada is not 'living up to the commitment' to limit family separations and the detention or housing of minors in immigration detention centres.

Statistics show that 118 minors were housed or detained in most recent fiscal year

The Canada Border Services Agency immigrant holding centre in Laval, where Jenny Jeanes works with people who have been detained. (Graham Hughes/Canadian Press)
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Two years ago, the federal government committed to stopping family separations, and the detention or housing of minors — except in extremely limited circumstances.  

Now, the Canadian Council for Refugees has released a report on how that's going, saying that Canada still has some serious work to do. 

Statistics from the Canada Border Services Agency say that 118 minors were housed or detained at an immigration holding centre in the most recent fiscal year.

Jenny Jeanes with Action Réfugiés Montréal says that number doesn't tell the whole story.

Her organization works with people detained at the Laval Immigration Holding Centre. It also provided information to the Canadian Council for Refugees for its report. 

She spoke with As it Happens guest host Helen Mann about some of the findings.

The Federal government committed two years ago to stop detaining or housing minors except in what they say are extremely limited cases. How have they lived up to that commitment?

Well, what this report shows, and what I would have to agree with, is that a lot of a lot of the actual cases on the ground are not living up to the commitment that's in the CBSA zone directive.

The directive, for example, talks about public safety being a concern that could justify having children or families in detention.

But I would say it's extremely rare that when parents or families are in detention that public safety is used as the reason — the vast majority of the families that we meet are detained because they lack documents.

It means that if they don't have a valid passport, they have to come up with other documents to confirm their name, date of birth, nationality, and that can be difficult to do — especially from a detention facility where there's very little communication with the outside world.

Official statistics say there were 118 children at these facilities in the most recent fiscal year. What does that number say to you? 

What the report is highlighting is that while this is a decrease from previous years, which is obviously going in the right direction, it's falling short of the commitments that were made by the minister of public safety and by the agency to keep children and families out of detention. 

What the report may be revealing that isn't present in official government statistics, is that there have been quite a few families separated at the border in Quebec, families seeking refugee protection here in Canada — where one parent is detained, and the other parent and children are sent to a shelter, seemingly to avoid having more children in detention, but creating some very, very, harmful consequences for those children to be separated from their parent. 

Jenny Jeanes, Detention Program Coordinator with Action Réfugiés Montréal, says that 'there's a lot of work to be done' in terms of how the CBSA handles families. (Ian MacDonald)

You are using the word "detention", but the majority of children included in the numbers are actually classified as "housed" at the centres, not "detained". What's the difference?

The difference, legally speaking, is that a housed child could leave the centre — they're not being held there by force of law.

In practical terms, to be able to leave the centre would mean leaving their detained parents, who could award their temporary care to another adult.

But the families that we meet in detention don't have that option. They don't normally have anybody that they could send their children to stay with. And even if they did, it could be even more harmful to the children to be then separated from their only parent in Canada who's detained. 

The Canadian Council for Refugees says in the report it's also concerned about issues around family separation in which one parent may be detained and the other parent is not. What's the impact of that on children?

We've had a lot of phone calls this year, often from dads, but sometimes mums, who are inside the centre.

They say, 'I arrived at the border with my family. We were separated yesterday and I don't know where they are.' This has happened again and again. 

And so we'll tell them that they're probably in a shelter for refugee claimants. We'll give them the number, we'll often help to make that connection.

But many times this has happened, and it's like the other part of the family disappears.

And similarly, we get calls from the parent who's at the shelter. We've given bus tickets to some families to go and visit, and it's a long way from downtown Montreal, and so with young kids in tow it can be difficult.

And then we've had some of the parents in detention say 'I don't want my kids to come and visit me anymore, because they see where I am, and when they leave they're crying too much, and it's too distressing for them.'

You know when we hear about family separation, I think a lot of people would will be reminded of the images and stories we heard from the southern border of the United States. How comparable is the situation here?

You know, it's really not on the same scale at all. We really need to look at what's happening in Canada in our context.

But I think we can we can do better. Kids don't need to be separated from their parents. They don't need to have that distress and harm of knowing that their parent is in a kind of a prison-like environment.

Of course, in the States, kids were taken away from both parents and sent far away and not given even the possibility of reconnecting later. We're hearing horror stories.

Here, families do eventually reunite. And we're in touch with a lot of the people that we've met. And they're living in Montreal, they're continuing with the process. But the first month or two in Canada was a very harmful distressing time for those kids.

In a statement to As it Happens, the office of the minister of public safety said it welcomed the CCR report as "constructive" feedback, as it described it. It said the number of children being housed or detained has been cut in half since the previous government. Would you give the federal government some credit in its effort to lower the numbers?

I think definitely in terms of seeing a drop in the number of kids in detention. It's a step in the right direction, and surely their directives have had a positive impact on some CBSA officers.

But I'm really distressed about the family separations. It's just an estimate off the top of my head, but over 100 kids whose parents were detained — where if the children had been housed, they would have actually almost doubled the numbers.

And so it's a measure that seems to have been taken to keep children out of detention, but then it's separating them from from their parent. And those kids are invisible. The kids in detention, they're in government statistics. We can measure the scope of the problem, but the kids separated from their parents, they don't appear anywhere. But we see their distress.

And so yes, sure, there have been some positive developments. But there's a lot of work to be done.

Interview produced by Katie Geleff. Q&A edited for length and clarity.

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