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Open letter: Canadian government must cancel plans to use federal prisons for immigration detention

More than 80 civil society organizations, settlement agencies and religious groups in Canada have signed a strongly worded open letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau calling on the government to abandon its plan to expand immigration detention into federal prisons.

Dated Monday, May 13, the letter highlights the human rights harms of jailing migrants on administrative immigration-only grounds. At least 17 people have lost their lives in immigration detention since 2000; most died while incarcerated in a provincial jail. Immigration detention can trigger or exacerbate mental health conditions, a key finding reflected in the 2021 Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International report “I Didn’t Feel Like a Human in There:” Immigration Detention in Canada and its Impact on Mental Health.

Between July 2022 and March 2024, all Canadian provinces committed to stopping the practice of holding in their jails people detained by the Canada Border Services Agency on immigration-only grounds. Human rights advocates called on the federal government to respond by putting Canada further along path toward abolishing immigration detention. Instead, the government, in its 660-page budget implementation bill, has proposed allowing migrants and refugees in immigration detention to be held in federal penitentiaries, facilities usually reserved for people facing criminal sentences of two years or more.

The full text of the letter, including the list of signatories, is below:

May 13, 2024

To: Prime Minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau

Minister of Public Safety, Dominic LeBlanc

Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, Marc Miller

Re: Stop plans to use federal prisons for immigration detention

We are leading Canadian and international organizations serving and working to protect the human rights of migrants and refugee claimants, as well as the thousands of individuals who are already incarcerated across Canada. We are writing to oppose the federal government’s Budget 2024 plans to expand immigration detention into federal prisons, through proposed amendments to the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act and the Corrections and Conditional Release Act. 

As of May 2024, all ten provinces have decided to end their immigration detention agreements or arrangements with the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA). As these decisions take effect, people will no longer be incarcerated in provincial jails based solely on immigration grounds. In severing their detention contracts with CBSA, the provinces have clearly indicated their firm opposition to the use of provincial jails for immigration detention. As Alberta’s public safety minister, Mike Ellis, stated in January 2023, “People who come to Canada for a fresh start and a new life deserve a better welcome than a jail cell while paperwork is sorted out.”

In response to Budget 2024’s proposal to expand immigration detention into federal prisons, the Bloc Québécois appealed to the federal government’s “humanity,” stating: “At a time when Canada prides itself on being a welcoming land open to immigrants, locking up immigrants in penitentiary institutions, with no respect for human rights, is nonsense.”

Using federal prisons to incarcerate people in immigration detention is inherently punitive and inconsistent with international human rights standards.

We are deeply concerned by Immigration Minister Marc Miller’s assertion that prisons would be used for “a very small segment of the population,” which he described as “not criminals,” but “high-risk” and often with “severe mental health problems.” In fact, the data from medical literature and research is clear that immigration detention can exacerbate and trigger mental health conditions, particularly when incarceration is prolonged and without end in sight. People in immigration detention can develop anxiety, depression, despair, psychological distress, psychosis, catatonic withdrawal, self-harm and suicidal ideation. The mental-health impacts of immigration detention are so severe that even a relatively short hold in detention can be devastating to the mind and cause long-term – and sometimes permanent – harm.

Over the past several years, CBSA has detained tens of thousands of non-Canadian citizens under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, most commonly because authorities believe they may not appear for an immigration or refugee proceeding. People in immigration detention include, among others, refugee claimants fleeing traumatic experiences and persecution, and persons with mental health conditions. The conditions that people in immigration detention face are profoundly disturbing.

Since 2000, at least 17 people lost their lives in immigration detention; most of them were incarcerated in a jail. Evidence presented at the February 2023 coroner’s inquest into the death of Abdurahman Hassan, a man arbitrarily detained for three years while CBSA was unable to deport him to Somalia, revealed shocking details about ongoing conditions of incarceration in provincial jails, including prolonged use of solitary confinement. The inquest jury’s first recommendation to the Government of Canada and the Government of Ontario was to end the use of jails for immigration detention.

We call on the federal government to immediately cancel its plans to use prisons for immigration detention. Instead, it should invest in community-based organizations that provide tailored and compassionate support independently of CBSA, including rights-respecting alternatives to detention, and ultimately end immigration detention across the country.

List of signatories as of May 10, 2024 (listed alphabetically)

  • 7th Step Society of Canada
  • Action Réfugiés Montréal 
  • Alberta Prison Justice Society
  • Amnesty International Canadian Section (English-Speaking)
  • Amnistie internationale Canada francophone
  • Angela Rose and Oak House
  • Association des avocats.es carcéralistes du Québec (AACQ)
  • Association Québécoise des avocats et avocates en droit de l’immigration (AQAADI)
  • BC Poverty Reduction Coalition
  • Black Legal Action Centre
  • Book Clubs for Inmates
  • British Columbia Civil Liberties Association
  • Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies (CAEFS)
  • Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers (CARL)
  • Canadian Bar Association, Immigration Law Section
  • Canadian Centre for Victims of Torture
  • Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA)
  • Canadian Council for Refugees (CCR)
  • Catholic Crosscultural Services
  • Centre for Justice Exchange
  • Centre for Refugee Children
  • Centre for Spanish Speaking Peoples
  • Circles of Support and Accountability (CoSA) Canada
  • Citizens for Public Justice
  • Colour of Poverty – Colour of Change
  • Community & Legal Aid Services Program (CLASP)
  • Community Family Services of Ontario
  • Community Legal Assistance Society (CLAS)
  • Community Legal Services of Ottawa
  • Compass Refugee Centre
  • Downtown Legal Services, University of Toronto’s Faculty of Law
  • East Coast Prison Justice Society
  • Edelmann & Company Law Offices
  • Family Service Toronto
  • FCJ Refugee Centre
  • Foyer du Monde
  • Global Detention Project
  • Halifax Refugee Clinic
  • HIV & AIDS Legal Clinic Ontario (HALCO)
  • HIV Legal Network
  • Human Rights Watch
  • Immigration and Refugee Legal Clinic
  • Inter-Clinic Immigration Working Group
  • International Justice & Human Rights Clinic, Peter A. Allard School of Law, University of British Columbia (Statements of the IJHR Clinic do not purport to represent the institutional views of the Allard School of Law or the University of British Columbia)
  • Kinbrace Community Society
  • L’Association des services de réhabilitation sociale du Québec
  • La Clinique pour la justice migrante / Migrant Justice Clinic
  • Landings
  • Ligue des Droits et Libertés
  • Madhu Verma Migrant Justice Centre
  • Matthew House Refugee Services Toronto
  • Matthew House Refugee Welcome Centre, Windsor
  • Mennonite Central Committee Canada
  • Micah House Refugee Reception Services
  • Migrant Detainee Support Coalition (MIDESUCO)
  • Migrant Rights Network
  • Migrant Workers Alliance for Change
  • Migrant Workers Centre
  • Multi-Agency Partnership of BC (MAP BC)
  • New Brunswick Refugee Clinic
  • Newcomer Legal Clinic – Lakehead University
  • OCASI – Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants
  • Prisoners’ Legal Services
  • Queen’s Prison Law Clinic
  • Rainbow Refugee
  • Refugee 613
  • Settlement Assistance and Family Support Services
  • South Asian Legal Clinic of Ontario (SALCO)
  • SWAN Vancouver
  • Table de concertation des organismes au service des personnes réfugiées et immigrantes
  • The Canadian Centre to End Human Trafficking
  • The Canadian Friends Service Committee (Quakers)
  • The Canadian Prison Law Association
  • The National Associations Active in Criminal Justice
  • The Peoples Church
  • The Refugee Centre / Le Centre de réfugiés
  • The St. Leonard’s Society of Canada
  • United for Literacy
  • Vancouver Association for Survivors of Torture (VAST)
  • Welcome Collective // Collectif Bienvenue
  • West Coast LEAF Association
  • World Education Services
  • Youth Association for Academics, Athletics and Character Education (Y.A.A.A.C.E.)
  • YWCA Toronto

Header photo: Jean Gagnon/Wikimedia