Canada: Nova Scotia to end immigration detention in provincial jails

Nova Scotia’s confirmation that it will terminate its immigration detention contract with the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) is another win for migrant and refugee rights, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International Canada said today. The move follows a landmark decision by British Columbia on July 21 to terminate its own contract with the border agency.

“Nova Scotia’s decision is a momentous human rights victory that upholds the dignity and rights of people who come to Canada in search of safety or a better life,” said Samer Muscati, associate disability rights director at Human Rights Watch. “With two provinces now canceling their immigration detention contracts within weeks, the federal government should show leadership by canceling the remaining agreements, which are at the heart of so many rights violations.”

‘There is now clear pressure to end this harmful practice across the country. We urge other provinces and the federal government to follow suit.’

Ketty Nivyabandi, Secretary General, Amnesty International Canada

Over the past five years, CBSA has incarcerated thousands of people on immigration grounds in dozens of provincial jails across the country. In Nova Scotia, they are held in provincial jails by default because the province has no dedicated immigration holding center. According to information accessed under the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act, as of April 2021 the federal government pays Nova Scotia one of the highest rates in the country, CAD $392.30 per day, for each immigration detainee.

“As a result of Nova Scotia’s decision, immigration detainees will soon be spared the corrosive, human rights-impairing conditions of the province’s jails, where solitary confinement, mass lockdowns and other forms of routine institutional violence have only intensified since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic,” said Sheila Wildeman, Co-Chair of East Coast Prison Justice Society and associate professor of law at Dalhousie University. “We call on the federal government to use the resources devoted to maintaining this brutal practice to instead invest in sustainable immigration settlement supports in the community.”

In a June 2021 report, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International documented that people in Canadian immigration detention are regularly handcuffed, shackled, and held with little to no contact with the outside world. Canada is among only a few countries in the global north with no legal limit on the duration of immigration detention, meaning people can be detained for months or years with no end in sight.

The border agency has full discretion over where people in immigration detention are held, with no legal standard guiding the agency’s decision to hold a person in a provincial jail rather than an immigration holding center. In the year following the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, the agency relied more heavily on provincial jails, holding 40 percent of immigration detainees in those facilities, at least double the percentage in each of the three previous years.

People with psychosocial disabilities (mental health conditions) experience discrimination throughout the immigration detention process. For example, CBSA policy indicates that  immigration detainees with psychosocial disabilities may be incarcerated in provincial jails rather than dedicated federal immigration holding centers in order to access “specialized care.” People from communities of colour, and Black people in particular, appear to be incarcerated for longer periods in immigration detention and often in provincial jails instead of immigration holding centers.

“Across the Atlantic provinces and throughout the country, migrants and refugee claimants too frequently face abusive, open-ended immigration detention – especially traumatic for those fleeing war or persecution in search of a safe haven,” said Julie Chamagne, Executive Director of the Halifax Refugee Clinic. “Nova Scotia’s decision is an important step forward for human rights. We call on the federal government to enact robust legislative and regulatory changes to stop rights violations in this system across the country.”

Nova Scotia’s decision is building powerful momentum to end immigration detention in provincial jails, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International said. Since the start of the #WelcomeToCanada campaign in Nova Scotia six months ago, approximately 4,600 people have called on the province to take this step.

“We commend Nova Scotia for its decision to stop locking up refugee claimants and migrants in the province’s jails solely on immigration grounds,” said Ketty Nivyabandi, Secretary General of Amnesty International Canada (English Speaking). “There is now clear pressure to end this harmful practice across the country. We urge other provinces and the federal government to follow suit.”

For more information, please contact:

  • For Human Rights Watch, in Toronto, Samer Muscati (English): +1-437-886-2505 (mobile); Twitter: @SamerMuscati
  • For Human Rights Watch, in Vancouver, Hanna Gros (English):
  • For Amnesty International Canada, in Toronto, Cory Ruf (English): +1-647-269-1795. (mobile);
  • For Amnistie Internationale Canada francophone, in Montreal, Camille Ducroquet (French): +1-514-766-9766 ext. 5236;
  • For East Coast Prison Justice Society, in Halifax, Sheila Wildeman (English): +1-902-476-2121;
  • For Halifax Refugee Clinic, in Halifax, Julie Chamagne (English, French): +1-902-478-0910;