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On June 11, Abdurahman Ibrahim Hassan, an immigration detainee with schizophrenia died after being held in an Ontario jail for over three years without charge while awaiting deportation to Somalia. Yesterday, the UN found that Canada’s treatment of immigration detainees, people like Mr. Hassan, violates international human rights law.
Earlier this month, I travelled to Geneva to participate in Canada’s review by the UN Human Rights Committee, and to raise the issue of Canada’s treatment of immigration detainees. In my submissions to the committee, I noted the scope of detention (more than 7,000 detainees per year), the indefinite nature (with some detainees spending years in jail), the disproportionately negative impact on those with serious mental health issues, and the lack of effective oversight over the detaining authority (the Canada Border Services Agency).
The committee is one of the most well-respected human rights bodies in the world, comprised of independent and eminent international law experts from every continent. My experiences in Geneva affirmed my impression that the committee approaches the Herculean task of ensuring compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights with professionalism and rigour. After reviewing thousands of pages of documentation, listening to hours of testimony from NGOs and the Canadian government, and grilling government representatives with insightful questions, this morning, the committee issued its final verdict.
The concluding observations for Canada are breathtaking in their scope, covering issues related to national security, Aboriginal Peoples’ rights, prisoners’ rights, and even freedom of expression and association for human rights defenders.
The document is a sobering reminder of how much Canada has changed in the 10 years since our last review and we should be outraged that, in such a short time, our international reputation has been so tarnished. We have gone from being a global leader in the protection of human rights — the gold standard, even — to a country that repeatedly ignores UN recommendations, engages in suppression of dissent, and enables cruel treatment of migrants. At seven pages in length, the UN’s assessment of Canada is necessary pre-election reading for anyone wishing to chart the changes wrought to our society in the past nine years of Conservative government rule
Of particular interest to me, of course, were the concluding observations and recommendations related to Canada’s treatment of non-citizens, people like Hassan. The committee expressed grave concerns around laws that allow for the mandatory detention of asylum-seekers who arrive by boat, recent cuts to the interim federal health program for asylum-seekers, and indefinite detention of migrants.
The committee recommended that Canada ensure that there is proper oversight over CBSA, place time limits on immigration detention, and ensure that there are viable alternatives to detention. It also recommended that those held in provincial jails be granted access to treatment centres for mental health issues.
These recommendations are an important vindication of the rights of non-citizens, thousands of whom are detained in maximum-security jails every year, including vulnerable migrants such as asylum-seekers, torture survivors and those with serious mental health issues, people like Mr. Hassan.
However, the UN’s strong recommendations will quickly become cold comfort for Hassan’s family if Canada does nothing to implement them. Despite the death of at least 11 immigration detainees held in CBSA custody since 2000, Canada has done nothing to end arbitrary detention and cruel treatment of non-citizens held without charge. Now that the UN has made recommendations to end rights violations against immigration detainees, we must press all the major political parties to commit to implementing the recommendations if elected.