Canada’s immigration detention centres rife with ‘abusive conditions’ and trauma

Despite the broad and significant powers of the CBSA, it has no independent civilian oversight
Photo: British Columbia Emergency Services
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“This is not a detention centre, it is a torture centre,” said Milena.

The Cuban woman was being held at the Laval Immigration Holding Centre, located north of Montreal, when a guard physically assaulted her on April 1. She was left with a vaginal hemorrhage, bruises and “significant pain,” she said.

Though she requested medical assistance for her injuries, none was given to her. She had to call an external immigration agency to transport her to a medical centre, where she received a painkiller. The treatment was inadequate, she said, and pain in her arm has persisted for months.

For months afterward, she asked to see a gynecologist, but never received a response.

“I cannot sleep because I am deeply anxious about my immigration situation.”

Though the guard faced disciplinary action, the assault left Milena traumatized. She felt she needed mental health treatment. Detainees have phone access to a psychologist, but Milena questioned the psychologist’s efficacy.

The psychologist “would tell detainees that our situation isn’t that bad and we could have it worse, that we should think about people who are experiencing wars,” she said. Many immigration detainees arrive in Canada after fleeing conflicts in their home countries.

The trauma from the assault was compounded by feelings of anxiety and depression resulting from being separated from her family. She had been detained for five months, and her deportation kept on being postponed.

Milena described her experience in detention as horrific. She found the food unbearable, as the centre would not accommodate her “gastro-related” health issues. She would go days without eating a solid meal, only drinking Ensure protein shakes.

“Because I cannot eat, I am always weak,” she told Ricochet by phone a week before her deportation. “What makes it worse is that I cannot sleep because I am deeply anxious about my immigration situation.”

Milena was deported to Cuba last month.

Human rights report documents ‘abusive conditions’

When asked about Milena’s story, the Canadian Border Service Agency (CBSA) told Ricochet that the government’s privacy act prevents it from commenting on individual cases, but that “serious complaints such as the harsh treatment of a detainee are investigated and handled promptly.”

A bombshell joint report by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International recently described immigration holding centres across Canada as rife with “abusive conditions,” and called for more accountability from immigration officers as well as the gradual elimination of immigration detention.

Though the report comes after multiple controversies during the current pandemic — including detainees going on hunger strikes to protest the limited implementation of COVID-19 health measures — it details incidents from the last several years. Overall, it depicts a situation where abuse of detainees is not an aberration but rather a fundamental feature of the Canadian immigration detention system.

“Time in detention is amorphous, never-ending, and ill-defined.”

The primary focus is the detrimental mental health effects of immigration detention. Detainees and their relatives, mental health professionals and immigration lawyers all emphasized that detention leads to widespread suicidal ideation, which is exacerbated when detainees do not know when they will be released.

“Without the ability to plan and look ahead, we unravel as human beings,” said an academic quoted in the study. “Detainees never know when — or if — their detention will end. Time in detention is amorphous, never-ending, and ill-defined.”

One detainee, identified only as John in the report, said, “A big thing about mental health is just having goals, having something to look forward to.”

“A lot of people were ready to die,” he added. “I gave myself a time limit: that if I’m not released by a certain date, I’m going to find a way [to commit suicide].”

Also noted in the report is that immigration detention leads to a sense of powerlessness — a common risk factor of depression — and grief at being separated from loved ones. Dr. Janet Cleveland, a psychologist and researcher quoted in the report, has published studies that show that even “relatively” short periods of time in detention can cause PTSD and anxiety. Some detainees even experience severe psychosocial symptoms. One detainee even reportedly developed catatonia and lost the ability to communicate due to his time in detention.

The report makes a number of recommendations, including the end of the use of provincial jails to house immigration detainees, as this violates recommendations from the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention and can worsen the symptoms of detainees with mental health conditions. According to the most recent data on the CBSA website, 19 per cent of immigration detainees are held in provincial jails.

In an email to Ricochet, CBSA said it is still in the process of developing an action plan to address the findings and recommendations of the joint report.

‘As if I was a terrorist’

Abdoul was detained in the Laval centre from January to March 2020. He told Ricochet that healthcare was insufficient, recounting an incident where he had an issue with his tooth and the centre transported him to the hospital.

As an undocumented person he didn’t have healthcare coverage, so the doctors said they “could not do much.” They decided to just pull out his tooth instead of treating it.

The person who removed the tooth was a student doctor, Abdoul said. The pain left after the procedure remains to this day.

“They didn’t even use an actual doctor so I felt like an experiment, like a lab rat. It was humiliating,” said Abdoul.

“I could see the fear in people’s eyes when they saw me, as if I was a terrorist... It was a traumatizing experience I will never forget.”

He was sent to the hospital in handcuffs, which heightened the humiliation, he said. Many people looked at him and assumed he was a criminal.

“I could see the fear in people’s eyes when they saw me, as if I was a terrorist. At one point, the nurse was scared to stay alone with me. It was a traumatizing experience I will never forget,” he said. “Even the guard was apologizing whilst putting me in handcuffs, saying that he would lose his job if he didn’t do it.”

Immigration detainees are regularly held in handcuffs when being transported to hospitals, according to the Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International report. Like Abdoul, they describe it as demeaning.

One Montreal service provider recalled that a pregnant woman detained at the Laval centre was taken to the hospital and spared handcuffs because she was pregnant, but then had a miscarriage and was handcuffed the following day on her way to an interview with the CBSA.

Ricochet also spoke to Mohamed Barry, who was detained in the centre for 72 hours in 2016. That experience, together with his other struggles with Canada’s immigration system as an undocumented person, motivated him to become an activist with Solidarity Across Borders, a group advocating for migrant rights.

He knows people in the centre — some of whom have been detained for over six months — and noted that family separations have insidious mental health effects.

“Sometimes pregnant women are separated from their families. I’ve heard of so many cases. It’s evil,” he said.

The joint report mentions that separation affects not only the detainees but also their relatives outside, with research documenting severe detrimental psychological effects on children — including long-lasting stress and trauma.

Lack of oversight body

Despite the broad and significant powers of the CBSA, it has no independent civilian oversight.

Moreover, Canada has not ratified the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which would allow for independent monitoring of the CBSA by the United Nations.

This lack of oversight has given the agency unrestrained power and led to repeated human rights violations, says the joint report. It recommends that Canada establish an independent body to oversee the CBSA, where immigration detainees can file complaints regarding abuse, neglect and other human rights violations. Notably, this body “should have the authority to order meaningful remedies and penalties, initiate its own reviews and investigations, including unannounced inspections, and not be driven solely by complaints.”

When asked if the CBSA has any plans to establish such an independent civilian body, a spokesperson said the government has committed to establish a “review body for the CBSA” — which is also outlined in a supplementary mandate letter written by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to the minister of public security at the beginning of this year.

However, there is no clear timeline for when it will be implemented. The Ministry of Public Safety told Ricochet that the federal government “looks forward to introducing legislation to establish such a review body at the earliest opportunity.”

In the case of allegations of human rights abuses, the CBSA said detainees have access to third-party agencies, such as the Canadian Red Cross, who regularly monitor the treatment of detainees.

In an email, a Red Cross Canada representative told Ricochet that the organization “endeavours to visit detention centres … four times a year to make an assessment” and “note areas where conditions do not meet standards.” It then makes recommendations to detention authorities. The information is also compiled into an annual report.

One of these reports, for 2017-18, revealed that not enough mental health support was provided to immigration detainees, with psychologist or psychiatrist visits occurring only once per week. The Red Cross recommended that detainees be given better access to mental health care.

The Canadian Red Cross would not comment on whether access to mental health services has improved in 2021, stating the organization raises issues directly and confidentially with the detaining authorities. The findings are also included in the annual reports, which the CBSA posts online at its discretion. However, the CBSA has not yet published the 2020-21 annual report.

The CBSA states online that, under the National Immigration Detention Framework, it is committed to “improving access to essential medical and mental health services, including psychiatric and psychological care.”

It also mentions it has “increased mental health training available to staff at all immigration holding centres,” but does not state whether this is mandatory.

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