Norwegian Red Cross

Making Immigration Detention Less Harmful

The Geneva-based Global Detention Project has issued a cutting-edge report on how to make immigration detention less harmful. The report titled Harm Reduction in Immigration Detention outlines key measures which states can implement to lessen the harmful impact of immigration detention on detainees.

The Global Detention Project report systematically compares conditions and operations at detention centres in five European countries to identify practices that may be used to develop harm reducing strategies in detention. The report, which was commissioned by the Norwegian Red Cross, is part of its initiative to promote reform of Norway’s detention practices. In doing so, it addresses the following key questions:

  • In what ways has the Norwegian system met or exceeded internationally recognized standards?
  • In what ways has it fallen short, especially when compared to detention practices of peer countries?
  • And what are the key reform priorities going forward that may help reduce the harmful impact of detention?

Immigration DetentionThe document highlights several key areas for promoting reforms across the facilities studied, including: placing immigration detainees in the custody of social welfare institutions rather than public security agencies; reforming operating rules on everything from food preparation to electronic communications; and shedding detention centres of carceral elements.

The Global Detention Project publication may also have direct relevance to the Canadian context. As is generally known, 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.

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. At present oversight of immigration detention in Canada is exercised by the Canadian Red Cross through an agreement with the Federal Government.

Unlike in other detention spheres, in practice no arms-length government body currently exercises oversight over immigration detention in Canada. The absence of any such body with a preventive mandate will be a significant monitoring gap to fill if and when Canada ratifies the OPCAT.

Nonetheless, for the moment the Global Detention Project report merits a close look and may contain some very important lessons for the Canadian context.

Readers may also wish to take note of the ICRC’s key guidance from 2016 on the use of immigration detention by states. This policy document stresses various key point, including that detention should be an exceptional measure and alternatives to detention should always be considered first. The full policy document can be downloaded in English and French.

Posted by mp in Monitoring tools, OPCAT, Places of detention