#immigrationdetention

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.

Posted by mp in Canada, COVID-19, Immigration detention, Oversight bodies

COPCAT Shorts – Joint UN Statement on Child Immigration Detention

Child Immigration Detention is Not Only Wrong, It Is Ineffective 

“Today, the United Nations Network on Migration strongly reiterates its position that child immigration detention must be ended in every region of the world. Detention of children for immigration purposes – whether they are traveling alone or with their families – has been recognized as a child rights violation and can be highly damaging to their physical and psychological health and wellbeing.  Detention of children based on their migratory status is thus never in their best interests.  Community-based programmes, case management and other human rights-based alternatives have proven highly effective and all governments should work to replace immigration detention for children and families with appropriate reception and care arrangements.”  

“Many governments that are implementing appropriate reception and care arrangements as alternatives to detention for children and families have found them to be more cost-effective and to result in low rates of absconding and high rates of compliance with status determination processes, including removal orders. Keeping families together over the course of immigration proceedings does not necessitate detention. This is a false choice.  Detention is expensive and burdensome to administer, and there is no evidence that it deters individuals from migrating or claiming asylum.”

Excerpts from the Joint Statement by the United Nations Network on Migration on Child Immigration Detention, published 16 September 2019.


Read the full statement here.

Read the Canadian Red Cross’ 2017-2018 Annual Report on immigration detention in Canada.

Find out what the UN Committee against Torture observed about immigration detention in Canada.

Read the Global Detention Project reportHarm Reduction in Immigration Detention (2018), which outlines key measures which states can implement to lessen the harmful impact of immigration detention on detainees.

Read the University of Oxford’s Faculty of Law Border Criminologies publication, HMIP Detention Monitoring Methodology: A Briefing Paper (2018), which offers illuminating insights into how the task of independent monitoring of immigration detention is being approached in one jurisdiction. 

Posted by mp in Immigration detention, Places of detention

CBSA Release of Canadian Red Cross Immigration Detention Report

Successfully evading the watchful eye of even the Canada OPCAT Project, the first report of Canadian Red Cross monitoring of immigration detention in Canada has been released.

Published by the Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) on 14 February 2019, where the news item remains a front page feature, the report highlights the findings of Canadian Red Cross monitoring of immigration detention in Canada in the period September 2017 to March 2018. A French version of this key report is also available on the same website.     

If the CBSA seems only too pleased to mark the release of the Canadian Red Cross’ CBSA detention report, the said report has oddly yet to surface on the Canadian Red Cross website. Even so, its publication comes as a very welcome step in opening up a detention setting in Canada, for which there is currently no statutory arms-length oversight body.

CBSA detention report
CBSA by British Columbia Emergency Photography (2014)

Instead such facilities are monitored as part of a two-year agreement between the CBSA and the Canadian Red Cross, as highlighted in the Executive Summary of the recently published report. In the document the Canadian Red Cross summarizes its main findings, as follows:

“Under the reporting period, the IDMP carried out a total of fifteen (15) visits to detention facilities holding immigration detainees between December 2017 and end of March 2018. Based on our observations made during this reporting period, CRCS grouped its concerns into the following five themes:  

  • Co-mingling of immigration detainees in correctional institution;
  • Lack of orientation about the detainees’ rights and responsibilities in detention;
  • Difficulties in accessing certain medical service;
  • Lack of access to outdoor areas in some visited facilities;
  • Difficulties in maintaining contact with families.”

On the basis of the CRC’s findings and observations the report makes the following recommendations:

  • “Where detention is necessary, to hold immigration detainees in facilities other than correctional prisons and where this is not possible, to separate immigration detainees from the rest of the prison population; 
  • To ensure that immigration detainees are fully aware of their rights and responsibilities, regardless of their place of detention; 
  • To ensure that immigration detainees have access to adequate mental health services wherever they are detained; 
  • To provide immigration detainees with daily access to outdoor areas as well as recreational activities; 
  • And finally, to allow regular and adequate contact between detainees and their families.”

In reaction to the Canadian Red Cross report, the CBSA has issued its Management Response and Action Plan, outlining its raft of proposed actions.    

CBSA detention

In contrast to certain other countries, Canada’s dedicated immigration holding regime is relatively small, comprising just three facilities. However, the country’s provincial prison estates are also used for the dispersal and detention of immigration detainees, a practice not without accompanying concern. Moreover, annually, sizeable numbers of persons are detained on immigration grounds.

According to the Canada Border Services Agency, in the fiscal year 2017-2018 some 8,355 persons were detained for a total of nearly 120,000 detention days in Canada. Of this number, 6,609 persons were held in one of the country’s three Immigration Holding Centres, while the remainder were detained in provincial and other facilities.

It bears noting that, during its examination of Canada in November 2018, the UN Committee against Torture voiced various concerns about recourse to immigration detention in the country, including the use of provincial prisons and the absence of any arms-length oversight body of such detention facilities.

During the said review in Geneva, the Canadian delegation stressed its intention to make public the annual reports of the Canadian Red Cross Immigration Detention Monitoring Program. The publication by the CBSA of the first annual report of activities is therefore to be welcomed.


Read the CRC report in English.

Read the CBSA Management Response and Action Plan in English.

Lire le rapport de l’CRC en français.

Lire la réponse de la direction de l’ASFC et un plan d’action en français.

Examine the Concluding observations of the UN Committee against Torture from December 2018 concerning oversight of immigration detention in Canada.

Explore the Canada OPCAT Project’s other featured articles relating to immigration detention, including the University of Oxford’s Faculty of Law Border Criminologies publication, HMIP Detention Monitoring Methodology: A Briefing Paper (2018) and the Global Detention Project reportHarm Reduction in Immigration Detention (2018).

Posted by mp in Immigration detention, Oversight bodies, UNCAT