Canada’s secret shame of imprisoned immigrant children

By Staff

Canadians may be surprised to learn that their own government detains and imprisons immigrant children, Toronto immigration lawyer Matthew Jeffery tells

“Given the outrage over what is happening in the United States, this is the right time for Canada to seriously undertake its obligation to protect the rights and interests of children and stop putting them in detention,” says Jeffery, who operates the immigration-focused Matthew Jeffery Barrister & Solicitor.

While the numbers of children detained in Canada is minuscule compared to the thousands caught up in the U.S. crackdown, he says no child should be detained or imprisoned.

“The good news is the number of children detained in Canada has been dropping,” Jeffery notes. “Between 2007 to 2008, it was 807 and the number has declined every year but there’s still no good reason to detain a child.”

The drop is partly because of Canada’s National Immigration Detention Framework, which pledged $138 million in 2017 to improve immigration detention, primarily by expanding and renovating federal facilities.

While he has never personally had to act to extract a child from detention, Jeffery says a report from the Geneva-based Global Detention Project Mission examined Canada’s record on immigrant detention and it makes for some uncomfortable reading.

“Despite the introduction of a National Immigration Detention Framework in 2017 — which aims to improve detention conditions and reduce the use of prisons — Canada continues to confine approximately one-third of its immigration detainees in prisons,” the report states.

“Canada does not place a limit on the length of time people can spend in immigration detention and children may be ‘housed’ in detention as ‘guests’ in order to avoid the separation of families.”

While some children are placed in foster homes, the Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) sometimes moves children into regular provincial prison facilities, such as the Toronto East Detention Centre, to keep families together, Jeffery says.

“I don’t know of a circumstance where it is right to imprison children on an immigration issue,” he says. “In the U.S., they are doing it as a deterrent to stop families coming into the country but that’s not the case here.”

Many groups have lobbied for change but the issue needs to be thrust into a spotlight, Jeffery says.

“The issue of detention is usually because there’s a risk to the public, there are questions over the person’s identity papers or they are a flight risk,” he says. “These cases are processed by the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada (IRB). There is a review after 24 hours, seven days and every 30 days.

"While there is a judicial review process, by the time a case gets to the court, there have been other 30-day IRB decisions which render the matter being appealed moot,” Jeffery says. “It hasn’t been a successful process. There’s very little oversight and what’s needed is another body to oversee the process and ensure fairness and justice.”

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