Montreal, Canada – The indefinite nature of Canada’s immigration detention system is causing psychological harm for thousands of people detained every year, including refugee claimants, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch said in a new report on Thursday.
The report, titled “Immigration Detention in Canada and its Impact on Mental Health”, said immigration detainees are handcuffed, shackled and subjected to solitary confinement, among other harsh conditions.
But not knowing when they will be released, as Canada does not have a limit on the amount of time someone can be held in immigration detention, in particular is worsening the psychological effect of their detention, the rights groups said.
“Canada prides itself on welcoming refugees and newcomers with open arms, even though it’s one of the few countries in the global north where people seeking safety risk being locked up indefinitely,” Samer Muscati, associate disability rights director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement accompanying the report.
“This leaves many without the certainty – or even hope – of knowing when they will be free again, which can have a devastating impact on their mental health.”
Canada detains thousands of immigrants every year.
The Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA), which enforces Canada’s immigration laws, can detain someone if they believe he or she poses a security threat, or will not show up for immigration proceedings, among other reasons. The CBSA must consider alternatives to detention, however.
There are three immigration holding centres in Canada – in the provinces of Quebec, Ontario and British Columbia – but immigration detainees can also be transferred to provincial jails in specific circumstances.
The number of immigration detainees rose steadily between 2016 and 2020, the report found, reaching a peak of 8,825 people in immigration detention in the 2019-2020 fiscal year.
Canadian authorities released people “at unprecedented rates” during the coronavirus pandemic, which the Amnesty International and HRW researchers said indicates that alternatives to detention exist.
The CBSA told Al Jazeera in an email that 62 detainees were held at immigration holding centres in Canada as of June 14, while another 97 immigration detainees were held at provincial correctional facilities.
The releases came amid nationwide pressure to release detainees to prevent COVID-19 outbreaks inside detention centres. Detainees at an immigration holding centre north of Montreal, Quebec, for instance, went on hunger strike last year amid fears they would contract the virus inside the facility.
“Here in the detention centre we are in a confined space, every day we see the arrival of people, of immigrants, from everywhere, who have had no medical appointment nor any test to determine whether they are potential carriers of the virus,” the detainees wrote in a March 2020 letter to federal government ministers, which was shared by immigrant rights advocates.
“There is also the presence of security staff who are in contact with the external world every day and also have not had any testing. For these reasons we are writing this petition, to ask to be released.”
In an email to Al Jazeera, CBSA spokesperson Judith Gadbois-St-Cyr said the agency would review the findings and recommendations in Thursday’s report.
“We can tell you that the CBSA is committed to upholding the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, as well as relevant international standards set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Agency is committed to ensuring the dignified and humane treatment of all persons detained pursuant to immigration legislation,” Gadbois-St-Cyr said.
She added that “detention is a last resort and alternatives to detention are always considered”.
“The CBSA works to ensure that it is exercising responsibility for detentions to the highest possible standards, with the physical and mental health and well-being of detainees, as well as the safety and security of Canadians as primary considerations.”
But Ketty Nivyabandi, secretary general of Amnesty International Canada, urged the government to gradually end immigration detention.
“Canada’s abusive immigration detention system is in stark contrast to the rich diversity and the values of equality and justice that Canada is known for globally,” she said in the statement accompanying Thursday’s report.
“There should be no place in Canada for racism, cruelty, and human rights violations against people coming to this country seeking safety and a better life,” she added.
Since 2016, more than 300 immigration detainees have been detained for over a year in Canada, the report found.
Researchers said not knowing when they would be released has caused “trauma, distress and a sense of powerlessness” for detainees, as well as exacerbated existing mental health problems, leading to depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress.
“Many immigration detainees develop suicidal ideation as they begin to lose hope, particularly those fleeing traumatic experiences and persecution in search of safety and protection in Canada. Immigration detention has especially harmful effects on communities of color, refugee claimants, children, and families,” the report reads.
“With a criminal sentence, your release date, that’s the one thing you hold on to,” an immigration detainee who was held in a provincial jail in Ontario last year, told the researchers on condition of anonymity.
“When you don’t have that, you just spiral … The unknown in immigration detention, it’s mental cruelty, torture. It’s beyond a human rights violation.”