Putting migrants in federal prisons is unjustified and unjust

By Lloyd Axworthy and Allan Rock

Lloyd Axworthy is chair of the World Refugee & Migration Council and former Canadian foreign minister. Allan Rock is a former minister of justice, attorney-general of Canada and Canadian ambassador to the United Nations. This op-ed was first published in The Globe and Mail.

Last month, with a single sentence buried in Annex 3 of its latest budget, the federal government shamefully doubled down on rights-violating practices of the Canadian Border Services Agency by expanding immigration detention into federal prisons.

Immigration Minister Marc Miller insisted that prisons would only be used for “a very small segment” of the migrant population, which he described as “not criminals,” but “high-risk” individuals who often have “severe mental health problems.” In fact, the CBSA already has a policy of incarcerating people with “mental health issues” in provincial jails in order to provide “access to specialized care.” As if jail or prison is the right place to get mental health care.

As Member of Parliament Alexis Brunelle-Duceppe stated in a Bloc Quebecois letter to the Trudeau government, “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, especially for a G7 country.”

It’s also a violation of international human rights standards, and a betrayal of Canada’s proud reputation as a safe haven for migrants and refugees, to those “fleeing persecution, terror and war,” as our Prime Minister once tweeted.

The CBSA has been undermining that reputation for years. Since 2016, about 45,000 people have been detained in Canada under immigration law. This group has included refugee claimants, children, breastfeeding mothers with infants and people with disabilities. The vast majority had posed no risk to “public safety”: over 90 per cent were incarcerated because the CBSA suspected they may not appear for an immigration proceeding, or because the CBSA was not satisfied with their identity documents. Rather than using more humane (and less expensive) alternatives to detention that allow for people to live in the community, the CBSA opted to detain thousands of migrants, even though every year, the agency monitors thousands of people in the community, and it is rare that any of them abscond.

While fewer than 10 per cent of detentions over the past eight years involved allegations of public-safety risk, the CBSA repeatedly cites exceptional cases to justify a broader use of detention. Even accepting the CBSA’s flawed argument, resorting to federal prisons to detain the relatively small number of “public safety” cases is an overreaction when other, less extreme alternatives are available. The CBSA’s three immigration detention facilities — which were allocated this year to receive $325-million in upgrades in the budget — operate like medium-security prisons, with constant surveillance, guards and segregation cells.

The CBSA remains the only major law enforcement agency in Canada without independent civilian oversight. (Bill C-20, which would provide for that oversight, has been languishing in Parliament for months.) The unchecked exercise of the CBSA’s broad powers has repeatedly resulted in human rights violations in immigration detention, and investigations have uncovered shocking actions by CBSA officers, including hiding evidence, strategizing to “rattle the cages” of a man with mental health conditions detained for over five years, and attempting to carry out deportation using a fraudulently obtained passport. A recent Toronto Star investigation found that an “alarming” number of immigration detainees locked up in Ontario jails had pre-existing mental health conditions.

Immigration detention can be of indefinite duration: there is no time limit imposed by law. People who have committed no crime can sometimes remain there for months or years. Since 2000, at least 17 people have died in immigration detention. At a recent inquest into the death of detainee Abdurahman Hassan, the jury’s first recommendation was to stop the use of jails in detaining migrants.

Following the launch of the #WelcomeToCanada campaign, led by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, all 10 provinces committed to ending the use of provincial jails for immigration detention. In doing so, many provincial officials expressed grave concerns about human rights abuses. Over the past two years, hundreds of lawyers, academic scholars, health care providers, and people from faith-based communities, alongside individuals with experience in immigration detention and dozens of leading Canadian and international organizations, have called on the federal government to end the use of jails for the purpose of detaining people while their migration requests are under review.

Mr. Brunelle-Duceppe’s letter put it this way: “Mr. Minister, I appeal today to your humanity so that your government reconsiders its position and rejects this project, in favour of a more appropriate follow-up to the situation of foreign nationals.”

We join in that appeal. Detaining survivors of displacement — especially in prisons — only deepens the trauma that many of them have endured. The road to a welcoming society is not paved with human rights violations. We need to invest in people, not prisons. And it’s time the federal government got on board.


  • Lloyd Axworthy

    The Honourable Lloyd Axworthy is the chair of the World Refugee & Migration Council and one of Canada’s leading voices on global migration and refugee protection. After a 27-year political career, where he served as Canada’s minister of Foreign Affairs and minister of Employment and Immigration, among other postings, Mr. Axworthy has continued to work extensively on human security, refugee protection and human rights in Canada and abroad. He was presented with the Pearson Peace Medal by the Governor General of Canada in May 2017 and is a Companion of the Order of Canada. In his term as president and vice-chancellor of the University of Winnipeg, Mr. Axworthy initiated innovative programs for migrant and aboriginal youth communities, and has also done a great deal of work on refugee reform as a Richard von Weizsäcker fellow at Germany’s Robert Bosch Academy.

    lloydaxworthy@gmail.com Axworthy Lloyd
  • Allan Rock

    Allan Rock is the president emeritus and was until 2022 a professor of law at the University of Ottawa. A former trial lawyer, he entered politics in 1993 and spent 10 years as a federal cabinet minister in the Justice, Health, Industry and Infrastructure portfolios. Allan was Canada’s Ambassador to the United Nations between 2003 and 2006 and the president of the University of Ottawa from 2008 to 2016.

    arock@uottawa.ca Rock Allan