Concerned about possible COVID-19 outbreaks, CBSA releases most migrants from detention centers

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The Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) is emptying its detention centers and finding alternatives to keep detainees behind bars until they can be processed.The reason is to prevent the spread of the coronavirus responsible for COVID-19. But advocates say it’s been a long time coming, and they hope it will pave the way for a new approach in the future.

Here’s a look at the numbers in early November:

  • The Laval, Quebec, detention center, which can accommodate 109 inmates, had 12.
  • The Toronto center, which can accommodate 183, had 18.
  • The new CBSA center in Surrey, British Columbia, with a capacity of 70 people, had 11.

For years, lawyer Pierre-Olivier Marcoux has pleaded for the release of migrant detainees.

The lawyer for legal aid in Montreal, who specializes in immigration law, can’t believe it took a pandemic to get people out.

“It’s in the best interests of my clients to be free,” Marcoux said. “But it’s still amazing that all of a sudden, because of a virus, we wanted to detain as few people as possible. “

Very few detainees remain in places like the Toronto Immigration Holding Center. (Google Street View)

Thousands of people put behind bars

Between April 2019 and March 2020, the CBSA put 8,825 people, including 138 minors, behind bars under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act.

Among them, for example, were asylum seekers who did not have all the necessary identity papers, foreign workers whose visas had expired and people awaiting deportation. Most of the children in these detention centers were there with a detained parent.

The vast majority of people jailed by the CBSA do not pose a danger to Canada, according to its own reports. (Paul Chiasson / The Canadian Press)

Almost 2,000 of them – more than one in five – were locked in provincial jails, either because the CBSA detention centers were full or because there was no center in their area. region or that the inmate’s file was related to crime.

But last week there were only 94 inmates with an immigrant background in provincial jails.

‘Does not come from the heart’

Patrick (an African national whom Radio-Canada agreed not to identify because his immigration file is still being processed) described the months spent last year at the Laval immigration detention center, an establishment detention surrounded by barbed wire, as “a traumatic experience.” ”

He said his every move was monitored by security guards, his hands and feet handcuffed whenever he was transported outside the building for appointments with Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada.

While Patrick was happy to see other asylum seekers like him being released while waiting for their cases to be processed, he is disappointed that it took a pandemic to get there.

“It doesn’t come from the heart. It is not because customs officials think the detention is inhumane. No, it’s because they have to do it, ”he said.

Immigration lawyer Pierre-Olivier Marcoux believes that most detainees could be released safely while waiting for their cases to be processed. (Submitted by Pierre-Olivier Marcoux)

The vast majority of people jailed by the CBSA do not pose a danger to Canada, according to its own reports. In 85% of cases, people are detained because officials fear they will not appear for their immigration process.

“And yet we are treated like criminals,” said Patrick. “Extreme measures are being used on people of irregular status, whose only ‘crime’ is often to run out of Canadian newspapers. For those who believed that Canada was a paradise for humans, this is a shock.

“We come from countries where there is police and military abuse. We come here and what do we see? This country which is supposed to be one of the most developed in the world is doing the same thing. ”

Lawyer Marcoux said: “It is often more difficult to secure the release of a person detained for immigration purposes than on criminal charges. ”

He gave as an example that an immigration detainee is more likely to be released if a surety is willing to house the person at his home while the case is being processed, in addition to paying money as collateral.

In criminal justice matters, the co-perpetrator is generally not expected to harbor an accused awaiting trial.

The CBSA immigration detention center in Laval, Quebec. The pandemic has led to a decrease in immigration applications. (Ivanoh Demers / Radio-Canada)

Since the start of the pandemic, Marcoux has noted that alternatives to the detention of migrants are more easily accepted. This is proof, he said, that detention can be avoided as required by international law.

Alternative solutions may be approved by the CBSA as well as the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada.

“99% respect their conditions”

“The CBSA is sending us an increasing number of people to empty the detention centers,” said Samira Figuigui, Executive Director of the John Howard Society of Quebec.

The organization has been overseeing a community migrant surveillance program in partnership with the CBSA since the summer of 2018.

However, the program has seen an upsurge since the pandemic.

At the beginning of March, the program had around 10 active files. He has since doubled.

Under this program, an inmate who is released from the Laval detention center must agree to a set of conditions, such as reporting to the organization weekly, volunteering, or finding employment (if legally permitted to do so) and during therapy, if applicable.

Figuigui said that “99% respect their conditions”.

Since launching the program, the organization admits that it has lost track of two people: one with a mental illness and the other with a drug problem. Neither posed a threat to society, according to Figuigui.

Jean-Claude Bernheim, president of the John Howard Society of Quebec, says the pandemic may have made Canadians more empathetic about what it means to be confined for long periods of time. (Radio Canada)

Canadians are more empathetic

Border closures due to the pandemic have significantly slowed deportations, but they have also dramatically reduced the number of new refugee claims.

If and when travel returns to normal, advocates hope the mass detentions won’t.

They also hope that the federal government has learned from this event and will continue to increase the use of alternatives, as they have called for over the years.

Jean-Claude Bernheim, president of the John Howard Society in Quebec, said he thinks Canadians are keenly aware of the negative impact of confinement, now that many have experienced lockdowns because of the pandemic.

“Being detained in a migrant detention center is a confinement which is more dramatic than in society. But the population at large is now realizing that restricting your movement or human contact has an impact on your mental health, ”Bernheim said.

“If these effects are true for free citizens, it can easily be concluded that they are much greater on those in detention. “

Public Safety Minister Bill Blair says detention has always been a last resort. (Adrian Wyld / The Canadian Press)

Radio-Canada asked the minister responsible for the CBSA if he was prepared to continue using alternatives to detention once the pandemic is over.

In its response, the office of Public Safety Minister Bill Blair said that was the approach his government had already taken.

“Detention of migrants has always been a measure of last resort, used only in limited circumstances and only after alternatives to detention have been considered for the first time,” the minister’s office said in its email to Radio. Canada.

“The CBSA is ensuring that volumes are kept to a minimum and that all release options are explored for cases where individual risk can be managed in the community. “

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