Three people, a woman in a black sweater and red scarf, and two men in dark suit jackets with dark ties, pose in front of a row of nine Canadian flags. Former federal cabinet minister Allan Rock (centre) spoke at Monday's press conference along with Sara Maria Gomez Lopez (left) and Abdelrahman Elmady, two human rights activists with personal experience with immigration detention.

Canada: Former cabinet ministers join Amnesty International in calling for end to immigration detention in provincial jails

Two prominent former federal cabinet ministers joined Amnesty International Canada (English-Speaking Section) and Human Rights Watch on Monday in admonishing the Trudeau government to end the Canada Border Service Agency’s (CBSA) practice of incarcerating refugee claimants and migrants in provincial jails on administrative immigration grounds.

At a press conference on Parliament Hill, the Hon. Lloyd Axworthy and the Hon. Allan Rock highlighted the serious human rights violations posed by allowing the CBSA to imprison refugee claimants and migrants in jails built for the criminal justice system.

“Too many migrants and asylum seekers are detained pending the determination of their legal status,” said Rock, a former justice minister, referencing the findings of a joint Human Rights Watch-Amnesty International report published in 2021. “And too many of them are locked up in places meant to punish and deter, even though none are held on criminal charges.

“Well, the facts are now out. The stories are public. The record is there for all to see. Now we must decide what we’re going to do about it.”

Ketty Nivyabandi, Secretary General of Amnesty International Canada, echoed the need for Ottawa to put an immediate stop to immigration detention in provincial jails. “Canada has incarcerated tens of thousands of people, including children and refugee claimants, in immigration detention over the past decade,” said Nivyabandi. “None were held on criminal charges or convictions. This structural violence is not only abusive, but it disproportionately hurts communities of colour, and in particular, people of African descent.”

12 Days of Action

Monday’s press conference kicked off 12 Days of Action by human rights organizations and advocates from across Canada who are urging Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to end the practice of immigration detention in provincial jails country-wide. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch are working with a coalition of Canadian social justice, academic, and grassroots organizations, as well as individuals with lived experience in immigration detention, to amplify pressure on the federal government.

Over the 12 days, several community-based organizations across the country, including Matthew House, Kinbrace, and the Halifax Refugee Clinic, will host events to highlight the compassionate care and support services available to migrants and refugee claimants as alternatives to immigration detention. The campaign will also include statements, open letters, and other actions by organizations that provide services to, and protect the rights of, migrants and refugee claimants.

‘The verdict from not one but four different provinces – British Columbia, Nova Scotia, Manitoba, and Alberta – in the span of four months is clear: they want nothing to do with this. It now falls on the federal government to abolish this abusive and discriminatory practice.’

Ketty Nivyabandi, Secretary General, Amnesty International Canada

The use of provincial jails for immigration detention is inherently punitive, is inconsistent with international human rights standards, and has devastating effects on people’s mental health. In their 2021 report, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International documented that racialized people, and in particular Black men, are often confined in provincial jails rather than in dedicated immigration holding centres. Persons with disabilities also experience discrimination while in immigration detention.

The 12 Days of Action come at a time when provincial governments across Canada are rethinking their participation in the practice of immigration detention. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch launched their #WelcomeToCanada campaign in October 2021, calling on provinces to end their complicity in this rights-abusing and harmful system. In July 2022, British Columbia announced it would cancel its agreement with the CBSA, which allows its provincial jails to be used for immigration detention, citing human rights concerns. Three provinces have since followed suit in cancelling their agreements.

“The verdict from not one but four different provinces – British Columbia, Nova Scotia, Manitoba, and Alberta – in the span of four months is clear: they want nothing to do with this,” Nivyabandi said. “It now falls on the federal government to abolish this abusive and discriminatory practice.”

‘I turned into an inmate, a number, a faceless nobody’

The press conference, organized by Amnesty International Canada and Human Rights Watch, featured heartrending testimony from two human rights activists who have experienced the horrors of immigration detention firsthand. Abdelrahman Elmady, who sought refugee protection in Canada in 2017 after fleeing his native Egypt, was held in three different B.C. jails over a span of two months – without having been charged with a crime or given a clear timeline for his release.

“I spent most of my time in jail in silence because I was only provided with one hearing-aid battery at a time, and only for CBSA meetings and hearings,” said Elmady, who has a hearing disability. “The batteries would run out after a few hours. I was repeatedly handcuffed and strip-searched. This was absolutely humiliating and terrifying, and I had no idea why I was there. I just cried.”

To this day, Sara Maria Gomez Lopez doesn’t know why she was held in a B.C. jail for three months in 2012 after she claimed refugee status in Canada. “I never understood why the CBSA incarcerated me in the Allouette Correctional Centre for Women in Maple Ridge – a maximum-security provincial jail,” the Mexican-born activist and community worker said. “No one explained the rules and there was no interpretation support in jail. I was expected to automatically know and abide by the rules or risk punishment. I turned into an inmate, a number, a faceless nobody.”

She said the suicide of Lucia Vega Jimenez, a Mexican refugee claimant who died in immigration detention mere months after Gomez Lopez was released, is a major inspiration for her ongoing advocacy.

“When I heard about B.C.’s decision in July to stop jailing immigration detainees, I was overjoyed. It felt like one of the most difficult chapters of my life finally closed,” Gomez Lopez told reporters on Monday. “I thought about Lucia. I thought about my cellmates who were with me in immigration detention. And I thought about all the people that will never be jailed in B.C. simply for seeking safety or a better life in this country.

“I hope the federal government will stop this harmful practice across the country, and finally give way to the humane welcome that has helped heal so many who found refuge in this country.”