Immigration Detention: No Life for a Child

By Hanna Gros

Canada prides itself as a place where immigrants and refugees are welcome — a safe haven strengthened by its diversity, where multiculturalism flourishes. Canada also prides itself as a defender of human rights at home and abroad. Canadians played an important role in drafting the UN Declaration of Human Rights, and Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms has served as a model for human rights instruments worldwide.

But in recent years Canada has come under harsh criticism from the United Nations and civil society organizations for its immigration detention regime, which deprives children of their fundamental human rights. Under current law and administrative procedures, children affected by the immigration detention regime enter a Kafkaesque world of prison conditions, uncertain lengths of detention, and separation from their parents, that robs them of the opportunity to develop normally.

Take the example of 4-year-old Delano who was held in immigration detention with his mother, Kimona*, while their identity and travel documents were being sorted out. Although they posed no security threat, they were detained for over six months before being deported from Canada.

When researchers met with Kimona and Delano at Toronto’s Immigration Holding Centre, Kimona described the first few months as “torment.” Delano had lost a considerable amount of weight because it took several months for authorities to properly address his food allergies, leaving Delano malnourished. He slept poorly, and cried during the night. Delano was constantly preoccupied with escaping detention, where he felt he was “locked in these walls.” He would ask his mother everyday, “how do I get out?” and even came up with an elaborate plan to use a trampoline to bounce out of the detention centre.

“This is no life for a child,” Kimona said. “[Delano] has reached a point where he has built up so much anger inside of him. He has really changed. He’s suffering and he’s not doing the things he should be doing: Just being free on the grass, kicking a ball, whatever – just not staying here.” But Kimona was powerless to protect her child.

Unfortunately, Delano’s case is not unique. Michel* was born into detention and remained behind bars until he was just over 2-years-old, before being deported from Canada with his mother. Mohammed* arrived in Canada unaccompanied as a 16-year-old asylum-seeker from Syria. He spent three weeks in solitary confinement before he was granted permanent residency on the basis of humanitarian and compassionate grounds. In recent years, Canada has held hundreds of other children in immigration detention.

Conditions in Canadian immigration detention centres are woefully unsuited for children. The facilities resemble medium-security prisons. There are strict rules, regimented daily routines, and significant restrictions on privacy and liberty. Children in detention are under constant and invasive surveillance, they have inadequate access to education, insufficient opportunity for recreation and play, and receive poor nutrition. It’s easy to see how these conditions create a sense of intense deprivation and powerlessness.

In fact, mental health experts paint a haunting picture of the impact that immigration detention has on children’s well-being. Studies from Canada and abroad show that detained children experience high rates of psychiatric symptoms, including self-harm, suicidal ideation, severe depression, regression of milestones, physical health problems, and post-traumatic presentations. Younger children in detention also experience developmental delays and regression, separation anxiety and attachment issues, as well as behavioural changes, such as increased aggression.

Even when children are not legally required to be in detention, their parents face a daunting choice: either they allow their child to be separated from them, or the child can remain with them in detention. Since both of these options are harmful to children, parents are deprived of the opportunity to meaningfully care for their children. Aggravating this scenario is the fact that there is no limit to the length a parent may be held in detention. This means children can live in detention, or be separated from their parents, for years.

Research has shown that immigration detention is an acutely stressful and potentially traumatic experience for children, but that separating children from their parents can be even more detrimental to their psychological wellbeing. This is particularly so for children who experienced traumatic separation from their parents before or while they were fleeing to Canada.

Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of Canada’s treatment of children facing the prospect of detention is that it’s unnecessary. Other countries, including Sweden and Belgium, have found viable alternatives to both child detention and family separation. Unaccompanied children and families with children can be given access to community-based non-custodial programs that involve, for example, reporting obligations, financial deposits, and guarantors. Adopting similar alternatives to detention and family separation would allow Canada to meaningfully protect children.

It is imperative that the Canadian government take urgent action in order to prevent further needless suffering, like that experienced by Delano, Michel, Mohammed, and hundreds like them.

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Read: No Life for a Child

*The individuals’ names have been changed in order to protect their identity.

Hanna Gros is a Senior Fellow at the International Human Rights Program, at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Law, and a co-author of the recently released report, “ ‘No Life for a Child’: A Roadmap to End Immigration Detention of Children and Family Separation.”