Excluded from Justice? Immigration Detainees in Canada
By Petra Molnar and Stephanie J Silverman
Petra Molnar is a JD Candidate 2016, Faculty of Law, University of Toronto, and will be an articling fellow at the Barbara Schlifer Clinic. Stephanie J Silverman is the 2015 Bora Laskin Fellow in Human Rights Research and a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Ottawa.
The migrants’ rights community was rocked by two recent deaths in the Toronto area at two separate immigration detention facilities. These deaths have been shrouded in secrecy and few details have emerged other than brief biographical sketches of the deceased. What we have learned is that the first man was found unconscious and not breathing in his cell in the Toronto East Detention Centre after an apparent suicide. Guards at the Maplehurst Correctional Facility in Milton found the second man six days later in his cell with no vital signs. Both men were awaiting deportation from Canada. An official total of 14 detainees have died while in the custody of Canadian immigration officials since 2000.
Our recent research into the Canadian detention system has found a growing system of incarceration ensnaring more categories of non-citizens than ever before. International human rights law stipulates that immigration detention is a measure of last resort that is non-punitive, non-arbitrary, conducted with regard to due process, and must not sweep up asylum seekers or other vulnerable people. However, although immigration detainees in Canada are entitled to monthly reviews of the reasons for their detentions, there is no express outer time limit, and rights to habeas corpus are extremely limited.
Canadian Immigration Detention System
As we explain in our article, there are three official immigration holding centres (IHCs) in Canada. The Government also subcontracts beds in medium-security provincial jails, such as the aforementioned Toronto East and Maplehurst. The Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) can detain a person if they suspect that: the person poses a danger to the public, are unlikely to appear for an examination, cannot prove their identity, or are part of an irregular arrival. A member of the Immigration Division (ID) of the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) reviews the grounds for detention after 48 hours, then within the next 7 days, and then every subsequent period of 30 days, as per Section 57(1) and 57(2) of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act. The CBSA claims that 74 per cent of detainees are released within 48 hours, and that 90–95 per cent of asylum applicants are released into the community. However, in 2013–2014, detainees were held on average for more than 3 weeks; as of summer 2015, 38 detainees had been held for between 1 and 2 years, 16 for anywhere between 2 and 5 years, and 4 for more than 5 years. Likewise, in summer 2014, reports showed at least 145 migrants had been detained for more than 6 months.
The legal and policy construction of Canadian immigration detention is a haphazard bricolage of legislation, court rulings, informal norms, and guidance manuals that are all infused with discretion and lack of oversight. This regime has been mostly reactive with little forethought to the potentially tragic effects of this system. Prolonged periods of detention inflict lifelong psychological, physical, emotional, and social damage. Detention often exacerbates mental health issues that many detainees face, such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), anxiety, and suicidal ideation. It is telling that there are no official screening procedures to prevent the detentions of vulnerable people, such as those with mental health issues, pregnant women, and young children. For example, according to data obtained on March 31, 2016 by the Canadian Council for Refugees, there are at least 82 children in detention that are accompanying a parent as “guests.”
Access to Justice in Immigration Detention
In our recent research, we also identify a series of systematic everyday obstacles that impede access to procedural justice for immigration detainees in Canada. Such obstacles include the arbitrariness of decision-making in detention reviews; the difficulty with gathering new evidence, the standard of proof for detainees, and prohibitive release conditions that collectively diminish the efficacy of monthly reviews of detention sentences; and the overlapping barriers to retaining high-quality legal counsel that include insufficient funding, geographical distancing, and informational hurdles.
A key building block to procedural justice is access to high-quality, affordable legal counsel. Although detainees have a right to be represented in their detention reviews, the government is not obligated to provide counsel. While a recent Canadian Bar Association report and a 2013 Action Committee on Access to Justice in Civil and Family Matters report both detail the difficulties facing marginalized groups of Canadians in obtaining counsel, neither report addresses the plights of non-citizens, let alone those in detention. Yet, legal counsel is found to be the chief determining factor in successful detention bail hearings across national contexts. Advocates in the United States, for example, have been keen to document the deleterious consequences of appearing in immigration court without counsel. The authors of the study determined that “immigrants who are represented by counsel do fare better at every stage of the court process—that is, their cases are more likely to be terminated, they are more likely to seek relief, and they are more likely to obtain the relief they seek.” Similarly, in Canada, effective representation of migrants is key to protecting their rights while in detention.
The structure of detention in Canada systematically impedes access to quality legal counsel for detained migrants. These hurdles include: difficulties with gathering case-relevant evidence from detention; one-way telephone communication out from the IHCs and prisons; unjustified and discretionary transfers between detention sites; and the increasing use of video- and teleconferencing over in-person hearings. Counsel–client meetings also vary arbitrarily across detention facilities: in the Toronto IHC, a glass partition separates visitors and detainees who must rely on a patchy two-way telephone system, but at the Laval (Montreal) IHC they are allowed to mingle in the visiting room. In both provincial prisons and IHCs, access to reliable information on available legal counsel is extremely limited, and not always in a language comprehensible to the detainee. IHC detainees are particularly isolated because there is no Internet and interpreters are made available only at IRB and CBSA proceedings.
These and other issues flag ethical and legal concerns about the current state of immigration detention in Canada. There must be a broader debate about whether immigration detention can ever be just. Until that point, however, it is our responsibility to prevent further deaths and long-lasting psychological damage by improving the everyday living conditions and lowering or eliminating access to justice barriers facing detainees in Canada.
 Stephanie Silverman and Petra Molnar, “Everyday Injustices: Barriers to Access to Justice for Immigration Detainees in Canada,” Refugee Survey Quarterly 2016: 35 (1): 109-127, http://rsq.oxfordjournals.org/content/35/1/109.abstract
 See for example the recent Ontario Court of Appeal case, Chaudhary v Canada (Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness), 2015 ONCA 700 (CanLII.) holding that immigration detainees can apply to the Superior Court of Justice for habeas corpus to challenge their incarceration.
 UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Back to Basics: The Right to Liberty and Security of Person and ‘Alternatives to Detention’ of Refugees, Asylum-Seekers, Stateless Persons and Other Migrants, April 2011, PPLA/2011/01.Rev.1, online: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4dc935fd2.html.
Nicholas Keung, “Report alleges ‘political interference’ in migrant detentions,” Toronto Star, 09 June 2014, online: http://www.thestar.com/news/immigration/2014/06/09/report_alleges_political_interference_in_migrant_detentions.html.
 Silverman and Molnar, supra note 1.
 Canadian Council for Refugees, ‘Immigration Detention Statistics 2015,” March 2016, online: http://ccrweb.ca/sites/ccrweb.ca/files/immigration-detention-statistics-2015.pdf.
 The Canadian Bar Association, “Reaching Equal Justice Report: An Invitation to Envision and Act,” November 2013, online: http://www.cba.org/CBA/equaljustice/secure_pdf/EqualJusticeFinalReport-eng.pdf.
Action Committee on Access to Justice in Civil and Family Matters, “Access to Civil and Family Justice: A Roadmap for Change,’ October 2013, online http://www.cfcj-fcjc.org/sites/default/files/docs/2013/AC_Report_English_Final.pdf.
 New York Immigrant Representation Study Report: Part II, “Accessing Justice II: A Model for Providing Counsel to New York Immigrants in Removal Proceedings,” 2011, online: http://cardozolawreview.com/content/denovo/NYIRS_ReportII.pdf.
 Ingrid V. Eagly and Steven Shafer, “A National Study of Access to Counsel in Immigration Court,” University of Pennsylvania Law Review 2015:164(1), online: http://scholarship.law.upenn.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=9502&context=penn_law_review .