Their mission is simple: they want to get immigrants out of jail.
On Saturday morning, a small group of human rights advocates gathered at the North Fraser Pretrial Centre in Port Coquitlam to call attention to the contract that allows the Canada Border Services Agency to put immigrants and refugees in provincial jails.
“Many people are held for about a week but there are also people who are held indefinitely and have been held for years . . . with no charge,” said Omar Chu, a Coquitlam resident and member of Tri-Cities Amnesty International. “They’re locked up and they don’t really know when they’re going to get out.”
The practice is made possible by a contract between the Canada Border Services Agency and the province.
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“We’re calling on the province to end the contract,” Chu said.
That push to end the contract recently got a boost from Vancouver city council’s motion asking the province to end the contract.
There are three dedicated immigration holding centres in Canada, including one centre in Surrey.
“Everyone else who is not is held in those immigration holding centres are held in provincial jails,” Chu said.
In the 2019/2020, 398 immigrants and refugees were held at the Kingsway Avenue pretrial centre, according to the Tri-Cities chapter of Amnesty International. In that same year, 8,825 foreign nationals were detained by CBSA, according to government statistics. The median length of detention was one day. The average length of detention was 13.9 days.
There were 138 children and infants detained in 2019/2020, including two children who were not with a parent or guardian.
“People see the pictures of children in cages in the U.S. and they think that can’t happen here,” Chu said. “That is happening here.”
Immigrants and refugees can be detained for several reasons, ranging from criminal convictions to links to smuggling or trafficking, failure to comply with immigration regulations, or based on ties to the community.
Those reasons must be reviewed within 48 hours. Canada’s Immigration Refugee Board conducts a subsequent review within seven days and every 30 days afterwards.
While the process is generally open to the public, reviews can become confidential if there is a danger to life or to national security, or if the fairness of the review could be jeopardized.
Being detained in a jail as opposed to an immigration holding centre can make communications a challenge, particularly for someone who struggles with English or has hearing problems.
“I’ve heard a couple stories of different deaf people who are in there,” Chu said, discussing difficulty getting a hearing aid while detained. “They’re just stuck. . . It really becomes impossible to get contact with the outside world and get connected with legal counsel.”
The experience of being put in jail upon entry into Canada can have long-lasting impacts, according to Chu.
“It really is damaging for people’s mental health and doesn’t set them up for success,” he said.
Chu, who helps immigrants and refugees with legal issues, said the detention is often a hardship for newly-arrived families. He recounted one mother telling her toddler, “Dad’s at work, he’ll come back,” while the child’s father was being detained.
Saturday’s protest was an effort to ask the province to review their contract, and to: “not be involved in this human rights violating process,” Chu said.