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Immigration detention reforms fall short without effective oversight: Senator Jaffer and Senator Oh
March 17, 2017
image Mobina S. B. Jaffer
Mobina S. B. Jaffer
ISG - (British Columbia)
image Victor Oh
Victor Oh
C - (Ontario - Mississauga)

Canada needs proper independent oversight of its immigrant-detention practices. Last year, the federal government committed to making our country’s immigration detention system more fair and humane. But to this day, there is still no independent accountability mechanism to oversee complaints against the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) — the body responsible for immigration enforcement.

On Tuesday March 2, 2017, CBSA issued an Advance Contract Award Notice for the Canadian Red Cross to provide immigrant-detention monitoring services.

The notice says CBSA selected the Red Cross because it “is the only source capable of successfully performing the work on a national scale as they possess the mandate, expertise, experience and network required to carry out neutral monitoring services of CBSA’s immigration detention program across the country.”

Without undermining the Red Cross’ important monitoring and evaluation functions, we are concerned about whether CBSA will give this organization the responsibility and autonomy necessary to perform the work of an independent oversight body, particularly as there currently is none.

For nearly a decade, Red Cross volunteers and staff have conducted visits to immigrant-detention facilities across the country to assess the treatment and conditions of detainees based on domestic and international standards.

However, results from these inspections are only shared with federal officials through confidential reports. While some of these reports have been made available to the public through access to information laws, it is difficult to accurately determine the extent to which findings and recommendations have been used to help inform efforts to reform our immigrant-detention system.

The current wording of the notice states that the Canadian Red Cross only needs “to conduct a minimum of 70 visits per year to detention facilities across Canada” and it is unclear whether reports will continue to be kept confidential.

Furthermore, we are particularly interested in having proper accountability measures put into place due to the ongoing practice of child detention for immigration-related matters.

Meanwhile, international and domestic pressure are increasing to cease the detention of children on the basis of their immigration status.

The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child has stated that “the detention of a child because of their or their parents’ migration status constitutes a child rights violation and always contravenes the principle of the best interests of the child.”

More recently, the University of Toronto issued two reports urging the government to immediately implement alternatives to the detention of children. The reports highlight that detention, even for short periods, has a detrimental and lasting impact on the mental, developmental and physical health of minors.

Our position, along with that of many advocates and concerned citizens, is that ending the detention of children should be addressed as an urgent priority. However, if the government continues to detain and house this already vulnerable population, at the very least there should be effective oversight by an independent body.

This omission is noteworthy amidst ongoing and welcomed reforms to improve our country’s immigration detention practices, in particular given our obligation to ensure that the rights of individuals, especially children, in detention are being fully respected.

For these reasons, we ask the Hon. Ralph Goodale, Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness, to explain the decision to sub-contract immigrant-detention monitoring services to the Canadian Red Cross instead of creating an independent oversight body or ombudsperson — one that would have unrestricted access to detention centers and persons in custody, as well as the ability to receive complaints and initiate inquiries independently.

Mobina Jaffer is a senator representing British Columbia. She is deputy chair of the Senate Committee on National Security and Defence and is a member of the Senate Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs, as well as the Senate Committee on Internal Economy, Budgets and Administration.

Victor Oh is a senator representing Ontario. He is a member of the Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade, the Senate Committee on Agriculture and Forestry, as well as the Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples.