Exploring the state of immigration detention in Canada

Vimal Sivakumar
Published: April 16, 2023

Through the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act (IRPA), the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) has the authority to hold foreign nationals (even if they have not committed a crime) in custody until a decision is made on the appropriate next steps.

In the case of immigration detention, so-called next steps can include granting a visa to the foreign national allowing them to enter Canada or deporting them back to their country of origin.

Immigration detention has been a long-standing practice in Canada, one that affects hundreds of this country’s immigrants annually. However, a recent boom in mainstream media coverage has reignited public contention with Canada’s immigrant detention policies. This may jeopardize the level of trust that many different members of the public – from current immigrants to Canadian citizens and future immigrants – have in this country’s immigration system.

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Appropriately, the following will attempt to help readers understand immigration detention in Canada. Starting with an overview of the rationale behind the practice, this article will then explore the consequences of immigration detention. Finally, this article will showcase some evidence that suggests Canada may slowly be starting to move away from this often-condemned part of the country’s immigration strategy.

Why does Canada detain immigrants?

Quarterly CBSA detention statistics show that Canada separates detained persons based on seven different “grounds for detention”. The list of reasons for detaining immigrants includes:

  • Examination: “To get more information from an individual to complete the examination, [officers may detain a migrant]. An examination can be as simple as a few questions [or involve assessing] the person's personal belongings, [conducting] more intensive questioning, or [executing] personal searches”
  • Suspicion of inadmissibility (serious/organized criminality)
  • Suspicion of inadmissibility (security)
  • Suspicion of inadmissibility (human/international rights violation)
  • Inability to verify identity
  • Danger to the public
  • Unlikely to appear: One “may be detained if an officer believes [they are] unlikely to appear for [an] examination … admissibility hearing, removal from Canada or at a proceeding that could lead to the making of a removal order”

Note: In Q4 of the 2021-2022 fiscal year, a total of 1,225 people were held in the Canadian immigration detention system. They are listed below, organized by the different “grounds for detention” outlined above.

  • Examination: 31
  • Suspicion of inadmissibility (serious/organized criminality): 30
  • Suspicion of inadmissibility (security): 1
  • Suspicion of inadmissibility (human/international rights violation): 1
  • Inability to verify identity: 59
  • Danger to the public: 132
  • Unlikely to appear: 971

What are the consequences of immigration detention?

The immigration detention system in Canada has received significant backlash for several reasons. For instance, as told by Human Rights Watch, immigration detainees are often “held for non-criminal purposes but endure some of the most restrictive conditions of confinement in the country … with no set release date.” In fact, of the 1,225 immigrant detainees in the system during Q4 of the 2021-22 fiscal year, 481 people were detained for 24 hours or less while 243 remained in custody for between 10 and 39 days. An additional 99 detainees were held by CBSA for 40 days or more.

As articulated in a report by Human Rights Watch back in 2021, the consequences of this treatment can be severe, as “immigration detainees are isolated and cut off from their support network, their families, and their loved ones”.

Furthermore, the consequences of immigration detention can also manifest as increasing levels of mistrust between Canadians and the government. Concerned stakeholders are taking issue with the grounds for detention provided by CBSA, especially the idea of jailing immigrants because they are "unlikely to appear." Critics of the immigration detention system say that people should not be jailed without a worthwhile reason, such as serious criminality or issues surrounding public safety.

Such issues of mistrust are then further amplified by cases such as the Christmas Day death of an immigrant detainee in Surrey, British Columbia last year. Following the individual’s death, CBSA came under fire for a lack of transparency after they failed to release the person’s name, country of origin and the circumstances surrounding their death.

This course of action from the CBSA, according to Human Rights Watch spokesperson Samer Muscati, is “really [just] another disgraceful way that people in immigration detention are dehumanized, even after they die”. Appropriately, such actions from the CBSA are creating conditions for many Canadians – from recent newcomers to citizens and future Canadian immigrants – to potentially feel increasingly uneasy with the country’s immigration system. Should this begin to unearth questions regarding the safety of Canadian immigration, it may consequently negatively alter public opinion about the country as a whole.

How is Canada working to alter immigration detention?

As of the time of writing, four Canadian provinces have terminated their immigrant detention contracts with CBSA. This means that they will no longer be holding immigrants in provincial jails.

The first province to end its CBSA detention contract was British Columbia, which announced its decision on July 21, 2022. Nova Scotia then followed that lead on September 21. Since then, Alberta and Manitoba have declared the same intention, for which all four provinces (and any that make this change afterwards) must provide CBSA with a 12-month written notice.

The future of immigration detention in Canada

Although Canada’s other nine provinces and territories have yet to terminate their own CBSA detention contracts, Human Rights Watch’s #WelcometoCanada campaign hopes to push the Canadian federal government toward completely abolishing immigration detention.

For more on this campaign, click here.

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