Global Responses: COVID-19 Impacts on Immigration Detention in Canada

Few places of deprivation of liberty have escaped the full dull-thudding impact of the current global health crisis against their walls, with immigration detention being no exception. Global responses to the related challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic have predictably been extremely mixed.

This past week the International Detention Coalition (IDC) and Humanitarian and Development Research Initiative (HADRI) have published a very timely report throwing a vital spotlight on the issue titled ‘COVID-19 Impacts On Immigration Detention: Global Responses’. As noted in the press-release accompanying the launch of the report:

“Over the past months, immigration detention practices around the world have been changing rapidly as state and civil society actors respond to manage the multiple impacts of COVID-19. In some cases, these changes have been positive, leading to stronger protection of the rights of non-citizens. In others, they have led to the increased marginalisation of and discrimination against non-citizens.” 

IDC/HADRI Global Responses report.

The report also underscores the following essential point:

“COVID-19 does not discriminate, but laws, policies and practices concerning migration governance, immigration detention, and public healthcare shape the vulnerability of migrants and refugees to its spread and effects. The contributions in this joint edited collection highlight both positive and negative developments over the past year that need careful attention – and in some cases, urgent correction – for the health and wellbeing of all.”

The report offers highly readable snapshots of the global responses from 20 different countries – plus the European Union. Setting off with a disturbing insight into Australia’s ‘howling-at-the-moon’ fixation with immigration detention (aptly titled ‘Detention at all costs’), via Japan, which has reconsidered its former policy of indefinite immigration detention, before arriving in the US with its head-in-the-sand approach to the COVID-19 crisis and its severe impact on privately run prisons holding migrants, the report offers some very disparate global responses to the impact of COVID-19.

Fortunately, some states come out of the pandemic looking somewhat better than others, including Canada – albeit not entirely.

Through its pandemic-induced border closure with the US, Canada has drastically restricted its obligations under the 1951 Refugee Convention, eliciting considerable domestic criticism as a result, including from Amnesty International Canada, Doctors Without Borders, Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers as well as the media. It has been left to UNHCR to make head or tail of asylum procedures in the context of the public health emergency.

In stark contrast, Canada’s response to mitigating the impact of COVID-19 on persons actually held in immigration detention have been reasonably progressive. In the new report Dr. Stephanie Silverman of the Thinking Forward Network has penned the concise two-page entry on Canada. Titled ‘Canada: The Cordon Sanitaire and the Shifting Threats of the COVID-19 Pandemic’, the piece presents an encouraging global response to the current global crisis. The following short excerpt reveals the extent to which the country’s immigration facilities have been emptied during the pandemic:

“On 17 March 2020, CBSA was officially detaining 353 people across its IHCs and in provincial jails. The population of IHC detainees fell quickly to 98 people (25 March) then 64 people (1 April) then 30 people (19 April). As of 19 April, 117 detainees were in provincial jails, corresponding with their categorization as “high-risk” detainees.”

At the time of writing, no more up-to-date statistics were available on the Canadian Border Service Agency website.

The CBSA detains immigrants in three main Immigration Holding Centres (IHCs) in British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec, but also uses provincial prisons. Currently, such facilities are subject to the independent monitoring of the Canadian Red Cross under an agreement with the CBSA. However, as there has been only very limited public reporting about conditions in such facilities (just one public report from 2017-2018) nothing is currently known about the circumstances in which detained immigrants are being held and, significantly, how the pandemic has impacted on their lives.

Viewed as a whole, author Stephanie Silverman offers a relatively positive assessment of the CBSA approach to decarceration, as follows:

“The Canadian case study shows a willingness to reduce detention and acknowledgement that prison health is public health: COVID-19 endangers not only detainees but also guards and staff, healthcare workers, legal advocates, and other visitors who bring droplets in to and out of the detention facilities.”

I Refuse – Anthony Miranda (taken from page 3 of the report).

The author also poses the very pertinent question whether this experiment will impact on public and government thinking about the acceptability of incarcerating migrants in the first place?

If one considers that immigration detention ought to be used as a last resort, one must also wonder why it takes a global pandemic to rattle prevailing orthodoxies in Canada regarding the actual good of locking up immigrants. Even then, as the IDC/HADRI report aptly illustrates, even this response has yet to be elicited in more than just a few other states, especially in one country not so far away.

Curiously, while certain provincial prison services have also resorted to far-reaching decarceration during the pandemic, the federal prison administration has shown a much greater reluctance to do so, despite initially paying lip-service to the possibility. With a second COVID-19 wave rapidly befalling the country, it remains to be seen whether such an approach will eventually prevail.


Read COVID-19 Impacts On Immigration Detention: Global Responses and the related press-release.

Lean more about IDC and HADRI.

Find out what the UN Committee against Torture had to say about immigration detention in Canada in 2018.

Read the Canadian Red Cross’ monitoring report of CBSA detention facilities for 2017-2018.

Browse past Canada OPCAT Project articles on immigration detention, such as Making Immigration Detention Less Harmful, An Australian OPCAT Focus on Immigration Detention & Global Compact on Migration.